Ajax go into their final game of this season’s Champions League group stage knowing they will be guaranteed European football next spring.
The problem for Erik ten Hag is knowing just where and at what level they’ll be playing their European football next year.
Ajax aren’t home and dry just yet, and it’s all left to play for in Champions League Group H. With two spots up for grabs, and Chelsea and Valencia also in the mix, the Ajax faithful wait with bated breath to know whether they’ll be playing in the Europa League or the Champions League after the group stage comes to a close this week.
Wobbly against Willem II
There were worrisome murmurs as Ajax fans shuffled out of the Amsterdam Arena on Saturday night following a surprise defeat to last year’s Dutch Cup contenders Willem II. It represents Ajax’s first league defeat of the season and the first time they failed to win at home in the league this season.
Ajax attacked with purpose for most of the first half although failed to make many decisive threats in front of goal. Despite dominating possession, the home side trailed at the half to a Willem II penalty. It came off the back of a counter-attacking move that was lucky not to be pulled back after it went to VAR, following a handball in the build-up to the decision.
The Tilburg outfit did well to contain Ajax in the second half before securing their victory nearly ten minutes from time.
It was a lacklustre performance from an Ajax side that has been used to getting its own way on home turf this season. It’s certainly not a result welcomed by Erik ten Hag going into the club’s most decisive match of the season on Tuesday.
Leading the line, but only just
Ajax are currently sitting on top of Group H after garnering ten points from five matches. It represents a decent return considering they were written off after the departure of two of their brightest, homegrown stars at the end of last season.
But once again Ajax look impressive in Europe having only slipped up once at home to Chelsea. Their goal-scoring prowess speaks for itself after notching up four away to group favourites Chelsea in an eight-goal thriller at Stamford Bridge, as well as two resounding three-goal victories to Lille and Valencia.
A different prospect faces Ajax on Tuesday night, against a Valencia side that are as unpredictable as ever. It will only take a point against the Spaniards to ensure progression to the knockout stages for a second consecutive season.
Ten Hag will want to cling to top spot in a bid to avoid some of the big boys and hopefully avoid some of the favourites to win this year’s competition.
Does lightning really strike twice?
In fact, a number of Dutch betting sites are offering great odds for Ajax to repeat last year’s semi-final reaching success. At 8/1 they currently sit ahead of the likes of big-league teams RB Leipzig, Inter Milan and Borussia Dortmund, representing great value for a side that already has the latter stages well and truly in their sights.
Despite the departure of key cornerstones of last year’s squad in Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong, the spine of the team has been largely kept intact.
Big game players like Hakim Ziyech and Donny van de Beek, veterans of last season’s campaign, have been instrumental in pushing Ajax forward at home and abroad this season. While Dutch international Quincy Promes has returned home to blistering effect in the Champions League.
On top of that, Erik ten Hag has stayed put after successfully guided Ajax to a domestic double last season, coming within a hair’s breadth of a first Champions League final in over twenty years for the Amsterdammers.
It’s no surprise then that considering the manager’s experience in Europe, as well as their squad’s talent, especially on the break, Ajax are in pole position to secure passage to the knockout stages. They’ve even got the bookies hedging their bets as to just how far they can go for a second year in a row.