De Jong to Tadic: six players behind Ajax’s Champions League revival

1) André Onana (Goalkeeper)

Indirectly, a former Barcelona legend contributed to Ajax’s demolition job at the Bernabéu on Tuesday night. Onana is a star product of the Samuel Eto’o Foundation, an academy based in Douala. He moved to La Masia as a 13-year-old in 2010 and spent five years in the youth system. The route to Barça’s first team was complicated and Onana was keen to try his luck elsewhere.

Ajax signed him after being impressed by a Uefa Youth League performance against them in November 2014 and his initial chance to shine came when Jasper Cillessen left for – of all teams – Barcelona in August 2016. Onana can deal with the ball at his feet while his speed and reflexes stand out, too. There is a sense of unfinished business about his time at Barça. “You have to do everything right here before going back, but I’d like to return,” he said last year.

2) Matthijs de Ligt (Centre-back)

De Ligt’s achievement in Madrid was extraordinary in its own right. How many 19-year-olds have captained their side to a win of such magnitude? But then the centre-back is a remarkable figure who should become one of the standout players of his generation. He has it all: the physique of a player in his mid-20s, leadership skills beyond his years and technical qualities that make the game look simple.

At the start of the decade, De Ligt was an outstanding tennis player and won his local club championship. He excelled at hockey too but his all-round gifts soon crystallised on the football pitch. Barcelona and Manchester City have been linked with the young Dutchman, but he coolly replied “Ajax” when asked to choose between the two.

3) Noussair Mazraoui (Right-back)

It was Mazraoui who, straining every sinew to keep the ball in play on the Bernabéu’s right touchline, caused the VAR delay that became the crux of Tuesday night’s shock. The move itself, showing lung-busting determination and then the presence of mind to distribute coolly, was characteristic of a 21-year-old who has come from virtually nowhere to be one of the most exciting right-backs around.

Mazraoui, who has been with Ajax since he was eight and at one point appeared likely to leave the club, was a midfielder by trade but has shone since making his breakthrough in February 2018. “He could become a very interesting wing defender,” the manager, Erik ten Hag, said later that season. That has not stopped the Dutch-born player making headlines further forward, scoring big goals against Bayern Munich and Benfica.

Real Madrid ‘devastated’ as jubilant Ajax fans celebrate shock 4-1 win – video

4) Frenkie de Jong (Midfielder)

A twinge of wistfulness cannot be avoided when watching De Jong, proudly wearing Ajax’s colours, produce skill of the kind that left Luka Modric for dead on Tuesday night. He will try and do the same in el Clásico next season, this time in Barcelona’s kit having agreed a €75m move in January, and it is a reminder that this Ajax side must be enjoyed while we can.

De Jong’s domination of the Ballon d’Or winner felt symbolic, like a changing of the guard. He is just 21 but his vision and awareness have coaxed the most grounded of observers into comparisons with the Ajax and Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff. “When I am on the pitch I play on intuition, but I think a lot about the game as well,” he says. It shows. De Jong already operates on a different level to most around him.

5) Hakim Ziyech (Forward)

Ziyech’s lavish talent was admired in hushed tones as he emerged at Heerenveen and Twente but the playmaker – like Mazraoui, a Dutch-born Morocco international – is firmly in the mainstream now. He has a wand of a left foot and laser vision. Those attributes have rarely wavered since he arrived in 2016 but he has stepped up another level this season, averaging better than a goal every two games, and believes his on-pitch relationship with Dusan Tadic is the key. “I’ve never felt such a connection with any other player,” Ziyech says. The pair’s movement is dizzying but countless European clubs would take Ziyech on his own. Ziyech, named the Dutch league’s best player for the last two seasons, turns 26 this month and finally has a shot at genuine stardom.

6) Dusan Tadic (Forward)

“This is probably the best game of football I’ve ever played,” Tadic said after a performance for the ages at the Bernabéu. Southampton fans may have been watching from behind the sofa by the time he cracked Ajax’s third goal past Thibaut Courtois. He had already set up Ziyech’s opener and then, via a tip-toeing turn that sent Casemiro spinning into an adjacent postcode, laid on the second for David Neres.

Nobody has ever questioned the 30-year-old Serb’s flair; there were some outstanding moments at Southampton but never really a sustained spell that looked like propelling him into the top bracket. His move to Ajax largely escaped the radar but he has been phenomenal in the Netherlands, whose lifestyle he admits to preferring. He has been directly involved in more Champions League goals – nine – than anyone this season and, given the chance to play with rare freedom, looks close to the point of maximum expression.


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