Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 May 2019

As Ajax have shown, the Europa League looks kindly on the young and gifted

Two years ago they lost the final to Manchester United. On Tuesday the Dutch club booked their place in the semi-finals of the Champions League while United crashed out

Quite a contrast in the looks on the faces at the end of Tuesday night’s Champions League quarter-finals. As Manchester United’s downcast players headed away from Camp Nou, thoroughly outclassed by Barcelona, a jubilant Ajax were promising in Turin that there is more to come from the young braves who have now eliminated Real Madrid and Juventus on their way to the semis.

Ajax’s remarkable adventure is a thrilling underdog triumph. History demands that be acknowledged. It is 22 years since the most decorated Dutch club made the last four of Europe’s most prestigious club tournament.

But the Ajax upstarts who scored twice at the Juventus Stadium and four times at the Bernabeu did not soar to these heights from nowhere. Their journey owes much to the fine education in the sport many of them gained at the respected and admired Ajax academy. It also owes plenty to the Europa League run of two seasons ago, the one that took them, very much as underdogs, all the way to the final - where their opponents were the Manchester United who on Tuesday looked so in need of overhaul.

The Europa League will never shake off its designation as a pale shadow of the Champions League. It is a secondary tournament, though its currency has strengthened a little since Uefa enabled its winners to gain entry to the group phase of the better competition the following season. That was useful for United in 2017, their 2-0 win over Ajax in Solna making up for their sixth-place finish in the Premier League.

But from the perspective of right now, that 2017 Europa League final looks like it was of greater long-term use to Ajax. True, they lost some of the young drivers of that campaign - such as Davinson Sanchez and Davy Klaassen - to lucrative offers in the aftermath and, true, they stumbled in the months following those sales. But a base of precocious excellence remained. The poised, assured Ajax who at times overwhelmed Juventus and Madrid include seven of the men who played in the Europa League final against United 23 months ago.

Or rather, in many cases, not the men, so much as the boys. Andre Onana, Frenkie de Jong, Donny van de Beek and David Neres were all 21 or younger when they took part in their first senior European club final.

And Matthijs de Ligt? He was just 17 then. He is now the teenaged Ajax captain, whose thumping header won the quarter-final against Juventus, and whose declaration of intent after Tuesday’s famous victory will resonate far beyond the dressing-room of Ajax’s next opponents in the Champions League. “We don’t know what we can achieve,” said De Ligt. “We are still a young team with so much potential.”

Across the continent on Thursday, there will be young men taking inspiration from De Ligt’s words, and from the fearless swagger of Neres, of De Jong, Van de Beek and goalkeeper Onana. And they will note that the Europa League served these players well and is often a springy launchpad for the up-and-coming.

Benfica midfielder Joao Felix, 19, scored a hat-trick in the first-leg win over Eintracht Frankfurt. AFP
Benfica midfielder Joao Felix, 19, scored a hat-trick in the first-leg win over Eintracht Frankfurt. AFP

It has, for instance, been a boon for Callum Hudson-Odoi. The 18-year-old winger, attached to Chelsea since childhood, has played more minutes in the Europa League than in the Premier League this season. He has used those minutes wisely. His four goals so far in the Uefa competition catapulted him to his first senior England caps last month. Hudson-Odoi is entitled, with Chelsea 1-0 up ahead of Thursday’s home leg of their quarter-final against Slavia Prague, to imagine he should have a major role in the remainder of the competition if Chelsea progress.

So too Joao Felix, the Benfica starlet, 19 years old and scorer of a hat-trick in the 4-2 win over Eintracht Frankfurt that the Portuguese club take to Germany. The Europa League has likewise provided opportunity for the exciting Ferran Torres, also 19, of Valencia, whose 3-1 advantage over Villarreal points them towards the semi-finals.

The competition has visibly matured the versatile midfielder Ainsley Maitland-Niles, 21, over two seasons. A night in Napoli, one of the game’s great tests of composure, awaits his Arsenal. But at 2-0 up, they are well set for second successive semi-final in the tournament that looks kindly on the young and gifted.

Updated: April 18, 2019 09:55 AM

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