Ajax are on a wrecking path to the Europa League final and, on Monday, their next victim is announced.
Peter Bosz managed in half a season what Frank de Boer failed to do in five tries: navigate Ajax beyond the group stage in European Competition.
De Boer did reach the Europa League knockout stage with Ajax on five occasions (including the 2010/11 campaign when he took over for the final Champions League group stage match), but not one of those appearances came via a top-two finish in their group. All five trips to the round of 32 came via a third-place finish in their Champions League group – of which, just twice did they progress to the last-16, and never further.
Ajax’s feeble run in European competition culminated in an altogether disastrous 2015/16 season. The club were dropped from Champions League qualification by Rapid Wien, highlighted by a 3-2 loss at the ArenA. They narrowly avoided being dropped from Europe altogether, scraping past Czech outfit Jablonec in the final round of Europa League qualifying to reach the group stage.
Drawn into a group with Fenerbahce, Celtic and Molde, Ajax went on to win just one of their six matches en route to a third-place finish in Group A and an early exit from European competition.
To be fair to De Boer, Ajax were often unlucky in their Champions League exploits. I still have nightmares of the nine-goal swing on the final matchday in 2011 to send Lyon through on goal difference. And who could forget the completely undeserved and unwarranted 94th-minute Mario Balotelli penalty to steal Milan a draw in Amsterdam which ultimately prevented Ajax from going through. Then of course they were dealt one ridiculously tough draw after another – in five years they were pitted against Real Madrid (three times), Barcelona (twice), Milan (twice), PSG, Borussia Dortmund and Manchester City.
But ultimately, these are merely excuses for an inability for De Boer’s Ajax to navigate their way through intercontinental competition. It’s not supposed to be easy. If they had better positioned themselves, the opportunity for late heartbreak would have been negated.
It’s because of these shortcomings that, when the draw for the group stage was revealed at the end of August, the relatively welcoming layout of Ajax’s group was regarded with cautious optimism. The draw was just a few short days after the club had crashed out of the Champions League, embarrassingly, at the hands of newcomers Rostov.
Little did we know, the script was about to change. Ajax breezed through the competition with a series of trenchant performances, ensconcing themselves atop the group with time to spare. Their unbeaten record in the group stage has helped gather implacable momentum in advance of the next round, providing reason to believe they can make a deep run in the competition, with the cooperation of Monday’s draw.
Of course Ajax’s wretched fortune in UEFA draws can rear it’s ugly head at any time – but with their first-place finish, the chances of a difficult draw have been significantly diminished. With that being said, let’s have a look at who Ajax could come to face in the Europa League round of 32, set for Monday at 1300 CET:
UEFA stipulations state that no team can be drawn against a side from their Europa League group or a club from the same association, which immediately eliminates Celta Vigo and AZ, leaving 14 teams Ajax can be drawn against. Among those 14 are both Rostov and PAOK, either of whom would mark a rematch from this season’s qualifying phase for the Champions League.
Right off the bat, some obvious ones to avoid are Villarreal and Athletic Bilbao, given Ajax’s less than stellar record against Spanish clubs in recent years, and the success LaLiga sides have experienced in the Europa League of late.
Borussia Monchengladbach would be another very tough draw, though it would make for an entertaining tie, as would a date with Manchester United, whom Ajax were eliminated by in the last-16 of this competition in the 2011/12 season. The club has been struggling a bit under Jose Mourinho, but with the current state of the Premier League, it’s very possible that the best chance for Manchester United to qualify for next season’s Champions League would be by winning the Europa League.
Of the pot-two teams, Ajax are most familiar with Olympiakos, facing them more in European competition than anyone else (with the obvious exception of AZ). The Amsterdam outfit has squared-off against the Greek outfit six times in intercontinental competition (W2, D2, L2), though they have not met since the group stage of the 1998/99 Champions League.
Anderlecht and Gent would present tantilising border battles, sure to elicit excitement among the neighbouring countries, while the prospect of facing either club would be welcomed with open arms by Ajax, who have a record of W6, D1, L2 against Belgian sides since 2000.
Keeping domestic responsibilities in mind, the worst draws for Ajax could arguably be Hapoel Be’er Sheva (3,400 km), Krasnodar (2,600 km), Rostov (2,500 km) or Olympiakos (2,200 km). On the surface a date with Be’er Sheva seems more than negotiable, but a 6,800-kilometer round-trip to Israel on a Thursday night is far from ideal – look no further than Feyenoord’s 1-0 defeat to Go Ahead Eagles earlier this season to see how a lengthy travel midweek (at Zorya in Ukraine) can affect your domestic performance.
While Ajax do unquestionably have the deeper squad, what’s exciting about a trip to Russia in the dead of winter?
There’s nothing friendly about the atmosphere in eastern Europe, either, but Ajax proved two-years-ago they can navigate such a draw when they dismantled Legia Warsaw 4-0 on aggregate. A rematch against the Polish club is possible in Monday’s draw, and would be considered a winnable tie for Peter Bosz’s side, as would trips to Romania (Astra Giurgiu) or Bulgaria (Ludogorets) – the latter of which is the current club of ex-Ajax forward Jody Lukoki.
Our human nature is what makes us enjoy speculating, but the reality is, all the hoping and wishing in the world cannot change the complete randomness of the draw. Ajax will get who they get.
That being said, here’s a completely subjective ranking of who Ajax can draw, from best (easiest) to worst (toughest), taking everything into account.
2. Borussia Monchengladbach
4. Athletic Bilbao
6. Manchester United
8. Hapoel Be’er Sheva
12. Astra Giurgiu
14. Legia Warsaw
Who do you want Ajax to draw and who would you like them to avoid in Monday’s draw? Comment below or tweet us @ajaxdailydotcom.