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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Ajax turn to wise heads in bid to reclaim place at Europe's top table

A change in recruitment strategy has seen the decorated Dutch club pay, by their standards, big fees for experienced players after years of failing to qualify for the lucrative Uefa Champions League group phase

Dusan Tadic, right, arrived at Ajax over the summer at a cost of €12 million as the Dutch club bid to restore their place among the European elite. EPA
Dusan Tadic, right, arrived at Ajax over the summer at a cost of €12 million as the Dutch club bid to restore their place among the European elite. EPA

Twice in his football career Edwin van der Sar, now the chief executive at Ajax, has had to say a reluctant farewell to a Kluivert. The first time, 21 years ago, he was bidding goodbye to a colleague, Patrick Kluivert, with whom the then goalkeeper had won a European Cup, as Ajax teammates.

This summer, it was Patrick’s son, Justin, 19, who explained to Van der Sar that, in pursuit of his ambitions, he felt it was time to move on. Just like his dad, a generation earlier, he had been offered a new contract, but his gaze had already turned to Italy. Patrick joined AC Milan in the summer of 1997; in the summer of 2018, Justin, a winger who grew up in Ajax’s celebrated academy, has just signed for Roma.

Van der Sar, who as a player also moved on, from Amsterdam to Juventus and then to Manchester United, knows how the market works, which is why he was appointed to a senior strategic role at Ajax after retiring from a long playing career. His job is to oversee the running of the most decorated of all Dutch clubs - four-time European club champions - and with steering Ajax along a tricky European highway that tends to push teams from the lesser leagues in the smaller nations such as the Netherlands towards the slower lanes, where the television income is measured in millions not billions and access to the Uefa Champions League is harder to attain.

Ajax meet Dynamo Kiev over two legs, starting in Amsterdam on Wednesday for a spot in the lucrative Champions League group phase, and they hope to end a dispiriting run of failures to make it that far. Their last three attempts have ended at the pre-qualifying or play-off rounds, and although the club celebrated a fine run in the Europa League in 2017, all the way to the final, where they lost 2-0 to Manchester United, these have been difficult years. Their tally of 33 Dutch championship titles makes them Holland's finest club historically, yet the last of those came four years ago.

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Hence a recent shift in recruitment policy. Ajax are owners of one of the most fertile, admired youth academies in the world, and spot foreign talent skillfully, but while that means they tend to sell young players for good money, and regularly - the Europa League finalists of 15 months ago promoted the likes of Davinson Sanchez, now of Tottenham Hotspur; Amin Younes, now at Napoli; and the younger Kluivert - it does not always make for a rugged first XI.

So Ajax have acted out of character this transfer window. They spent what are sizeable sums by their modern standards on tried-and-tested seniors, and went shopping in the wealthy English Premier League, to where business usually flows in the other direction. Dusan Tadic, the 29-year-old Serbian, has come in at a cost of €12 million (Dh51m) from Southampton, and 28-year-old Daley Blind, who, like Justin Kluivert, has a father who played at Ajax in happier times and who himself grew up at Ajax, has returned, via a fee of €16m to Manchester United.

“It is a bit of change of philosophy,” Van der Sar told reporters. “Normally we would develop our own talent, but sometimes you need someone with a bit of experience and the qualities the team is short of.”

Ajax forward Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, 35, has struck four times in the Uefa Champions League qualifying phase so far, against Sturm Graz and Standard Liege. AFP
Ajax forward Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, 35, has struck four times in the Uefa Champions League qualifying phase so far, against Sturm Graz and Standard Liege. AFP

And in the high-stakes knockout ties that lead to Champions League bounty can be a severe test for callow young men.

Last summer, Ajax were knocked out of the Europa League at the preliminary stage by Rosenburg of Norway; Russia’s Rostov eliminated them in Champions League qualifying a year earlier.

Their older, wiser heads are their insurance against Dynamo. Tadic has scored in both rounds so far of the lengthy journey chasing a place in the group phase, and the goals of veteran striker, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who has struck four times in the ties against Sturm Graz and Standard Liege, have proved his enduring savvy. Huntelaar, formerly of Real Madrid, AC Milan, and Schalke, turned 35 earlier this month. His finishing instincts remain sharp enough to lead what Ajax hope will be their return to a top table where they once had a place laid for them by right.

Uefa Champions League play-off

First leg: Wednesday, 11pm (UAE)
Ajax v Dynamo Kiev

Second leg: Tuesday, August 28, 11pm (UAE)
Dynamo Kiev v Ajax

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