Ajax, Europe’s romantics, have a pragmatic side too

Ajax are everyone’s favorite romantics, but they showed in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal against Tottenham that they have a pragmatic side.

Is there a club in European soccer as romantic, as syrupy as Ajax? Sure, there are teams who have won more, who have more fans, who have boasted better players over the course of their history, but few are woven so tightly into the DNA and folklore of the sport. The Amsterdam outfit’s recent rise has therefore struck a sentimental chord with many fans, not just their own.

Indeed, Ajax’s run to the semifinals of the Champions League has provided the most compelling storyline in all of European soccer this season. Their run might not stop there either, with Donny van de Beek’s winner in the first leg against Tottenham last week putting them within touching distance of a final appearance, most likely against Barcelona. The Johan Cruyff final.

But can Ajax really win their first Champions League title since 1995 while evoking the spirit of that Louis van Gaal side that sent shockwaves through the European game 24 years ago? There are certainly parallels to be drawn between the two generations. Prepare yourself for countless recollections of that 1995 triumph if Ajax do make it to this season’s Champions League final.

Anyone who doubted Ajax could go all the way were surely silenced by the Dutch side’s performance in the first leg of their away win over Spurs. They were, without exaggeration, utterly dominant and could have scored more than the one notched through van de Beek. Spurs, for 45 minutes, looked shellshocked.

The second half was a different story, though. The introduction of Moussa Sissoko changed the game, with Mauricio Pochettino seemingly gaining a tactical grasp on the Ajax game plan. That will give the north London side hope ahead of the second leg, hope that they can overturn the 1-0 deficit to make the final.

Spurs’ second half resurgence in the first leg raises a question of this Ajax team: Will they have to compromise on their principles to get the best out of this hugely talented group of players? Are they being too idealistic by expecting that their adapted and modernized interpretation of Total Football can carry them all the way?

The exciting, exhilarating Monaco team of two years ago, for instance, were a little too true to their values, falling just short of making the final as the chaos that saw them blow past Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund finally engulfed them in the semifinals against Juventus. Given the talent the Ligue 1 outfit boasted at that time, it could be argued that they missed an opportunity.

Ajax are tied much closer to their principles than Monaco ever were, but they may have already done more to demonstrate their willingness to adapt and tailor their approach depending on the task at hand. While Spurs undoubtedly took the game to Ajax in the second half last Tuesday, it wasn’t that the Dutch visitors lost control.

Instead, Ajax, recognizing that Spurs had changed shape and mentality, opted for a more conservative approach, seeing out a valuable 1-0 away win effectively. Tottenham huffed and puffed, but never even came close to blowing the house down. Bar a few needlessly shaky moments from Andre Onana, Ajax were relatively comfortable.

That, as much as the emphatic first half display, proved Ajax’s worth as genuine Champions League challengers. If they are to meet Barcelona in the competition’s final, as would now appear likely, Erik ten Hag must devise a secondary game plan. Against Spurs, at least in the second half, he may well have begun work on that.

All this attempts to qualify and maybe even dull the undeniable romanticism of Ajax’s rise back to the top of European soccer. But that has always been the paradox of their essence as a club. To a certain generation of fan, they have something intangible, something serendipitous that makes them special. Ajax’s success is one of the mind, though, not of good fortune.

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