By: Gregory Oldfield Special to the Florida Cup
Ajax enter the Florida Cup fielding their best team in years, possibly their best team in a generation.
It’s been nearly a quarter-century since Ajax were Kings of Europe in 1995. Led by Jari Litmanen, Edgar Davids, Marc Overmars, Clarence Seedorf, Nwankwo Kanu, Finidi George, Patrick Kluivert, Edwin van der Sar, and the De Boer brothers, all players under twenty-five years old, Ajax defeated AC Milan 1-0 and had the team destined to dominate European football for the next decade. Ajax played in the Champions League Final again in 1996, losing to Juventus on penalties. But soon this talented group of players moved on, and although many went on to win numerous titles, both European and domestic, with other clubs, the team of ’95 remain a once-in-a-generation side.
Coach Erik ten Hag, who joined Ajax from Utrecht just over a year ago, has built a balanced team full of youth and experience capable of playing both beautiful and crushing football. Ajax in 2018 may be just as formidable as they were during their four-title seasons between 2011-2014 if given the time to stick together. Dušan Tadić is having a career resurgence after joining the club in the summer, leading Ajax with 19 goals in all competitions. Hakim Ziyech, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Kasper Dolberg, and David Neres lead a multi-dimensional attack that has put up one impressive offensive performance after another, scoring 60 goals during the first half in the Eredivisie. Frenkie De Jong, the next Dutch superstar, leads a skilled and composed midfield that includes Donny van de Beek and veteran Lasse Schöne. Matthijs de Ligt, another next-generational star, anchors the defense alongside Daley Blind, Nico Tagliofico, November’s Player of the Month in the Eredivisie, Noussair Mazroui, November’s Talent of the Month, and André Onana, one of the best young goalkeepers in the World.
Ajax began the season in late July, running through Champions League qualification with ease, topping SK Sturm Graz, Standard Liège, and Dynamo Kyiv to reach the group stage. But it wasn’t until their opening draw in Munich that put Ajax back into the European spotlight. Since then, they’ve defeated AEK Athens twice, earned a win and a draw against Benfica, and closed the group stage with an emotional 3-3 draw at home to Munich in one of the best games in the group stage this season. Finishing as Group E runner-up, Ajax were certain to draw a big name in the knockout round, but their matchup against Real Madrid, three-time defending European champions, will be the surest test of how well this generation of stars can compete with the European elite. Although Ajax have been labeled an underdog, no one in the Spanish capital could have been happy to see the Amsterdam club’s name next to theirs when the fixtures were announced in late December.
Ajax opened the Eredivisie winning four of their first five matches before losing 3-0 to PSV in Eindhoven. Since then, Ajax has won eleven straight in the Eredivisie, keeping the pressure on PSV, who only hold a two-point advantage over the Amsterdam side. In the KNVB Cup, Ajax reached the quarterfinal stage after defeating Roda 4-2 in penalty kicks.
In 2019, aside from the Champions league, Ajax will have plenty to play for. They open the second half of the Eredivisie with Herenveen on January 20th then play Heerenveen again two days later in the quarterfinals of the KNVB Cup. And in late March, the Eredivisie will likely be decided when PSV comes to the Johan Cruyff Arena.
Ajax will play Flamengo on January 10th and São Paulo on January 12th at Orlando City Stadium.
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