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On top of the pile: Ajax's return to prominence

Written by: Srinivasan

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With an average age of just 22, Ajax have one of the best young squads in Europe and have reached the finals of the UEFA Europa League having played some high-quality football. . . 

When one sees Barcelona in action, it is hard not to be impressed by the fluidity of their passing and movement and watch in awe as their famed youth academy La Masia churns out one academy graduate after another to make their way into the first team. However, what many may not be aware of is how Barcelona's current way of life is heavily influenced by one of the most progressive football clubs on the planet, Ajax AFC.

33 time winner of the Dutch Eredivisie and 4 time winner of the European Cup/Champions League, the club's history as a serial winner is well documented. Not to mention, their commitment towards Total Football is unquestionable and are focussed on supplying talent to the first team via their academy. It was a system that was put into play by the club's prodigal son, Johann Cryuff who went on to bring about a revolution at Barcelona, something that the Spanish club will forever be in debt for. 

For a club that is well accustomed to challenging for European honours, it has seen a fall in grace of sorts as they have been unable to compete with clubs from leagues such as France, Spain, Germany and England who have greater financial clout and have been regular raiders of some of the best young talents that Ajax has to offer. 

For a team that once boasted of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Luis Suarez, Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder, one wonders how the team could have consistently gone toe to toe with some of the biggest clubs in Europe. However, the club's recent voyage to the final of the Europa League has brought hope to millions of Ajax fans in Amsterdam and across the world. 

With an adventurous young manager in Peter Bosz who has reverted to a system that is old school Ajax - fluid attacking football and a roster that is brimming with young talent, Ajax have well and truly earned themselves a chance to haul themselves into being given the title of a European superpower again. 

After years of stagnation, Bosz's philosophy, a young roster and a management team that is filled with former Ajax greats such as Edwin van der Saar, Dennis Bergkamp, and Marc Overmars, they are setting an example of how having former players in important positions help a club maintain its identity. Bayern Munich's structure with former greats such as Franz Beckenbauer and Karl-Heinz Rummenige at the top echelons of the club have seen it being a model for clubs to replicate. 

As for the first team, Bosz's philosophy of high octane, high pressing football requires his team to be fast, young and ready to absorb knowledge. It is with this intent that he has ensured that his first team squad has one of the lowest average ages across Europe. 

Right from sweeper keeper Andre Onana, to 'veteran' 25-year old Joel Veltman, the first team has an element of freshness to it that has been missing from Ajax for many years. They have shown that they can cut it at the top level of European football despite the squad being shy of players with vast European experience. 

They have been frighteningly good going forward, but their high defensive line leaves them open to the risk of a fast opposition counter attack. The first leg victory against Lyon in the semi-finals of the Europa League was a treat to watch for the footballing purist, one who can link that performance to the fluidity that was seen during the eras of Cryuff and subsequently Louis van Gaal's team of the 90's. The array of talent on display in the form of Kasper Dolberg, Bertrand Traore, and Amin Younes are sure to be on the shortlists for many a European club prior to next season. 

One could argue that they have been prone to throwing up shaky performances in the away legs of their knockout ties. However, Bosz would not have reached this stage of the of the competition had he not learnt from his mistakes.

The Dutch side will come up against a Manchester United side that have been through a gruelling season that has seen injuries to numerous members of the roster such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Luke Shaw, and Juan Mata thus preventing manager Jose Mourinho from rotating his squad to keep players fresh for the Premier League, FA Cup and the Europa League. The Portuguese trainer has opted to give up on chasing the last Champions League spot in favour of entering the group stages via victory in the Europa League. 

Bosz will be well aware of Mourinho's record in European finals which stands at 2 victories in as many finals. However, the Dutchman will have reason to believe that his team can put aside years of under achievement in European club football to finally return to the pedestal that they deservedly belong to.

Published: Mon May 22, 2017 07:45 PM IST

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