Europa League Review: Unbeaten Ajax sail through group

Ajax and success in European matches? During the 70’s and mid 90’s yes, however in recent years? No. Whilst the Amsterdammers have registered impressive victories in certain matches (2-1 victory against Barcelona in 2014 and a 3-1 win against Man City in 2013), the majority of European games have either ended in a loss or a frustrating stalemate.

My body still shivers when I hear the names of clubs like Slavia Prague, FC Copenhagen, Salzburg and FC Rostov, to name a few. The mind boggles at the fact that Ajax have failed to offer anything in Europe in recent years, despite such rich heritage and history. So, when the 2015/16 Champions League campaign ended in bitter disappointment (again), as Ajax lost to FC Rostov therefore failing to qualify for the group stages, it seemed like Ajax’s adventure in Europe would come to a premature end. How very wrong we were for thinking like that (and thankfully so).

The 2015/16 Europa League group stage draw saw Ajax pitted against Celta de Vigo, Standard Liege and Panathinaikos. A tough group on the face of it with teams that do well in their respective leagues. Thus, the fact that Ajax were the first team in their group to qualify for the knockout stage is very impressive. The fact that Ajax sailed through their group unbeaten is even more impressive. That fact that Ajax did this whilst playing attractive, fluid football (and in two games with a ‘B’ team) was the icing on what is looking like a really big, delicious cake.

Panathinaikos away is no easy place to get a result, and when Ajax went 1-0 down after an error by André Onana it seemed like it would be a long night for the Amsterdammers. However, a lovely strike by Bertrand Traoré and a goal by Jaïro Riedewald sealed the three points for Ajax to get their campaign off to a perfect start. Gameday 2 saw Ajax host Belgian outfit, Standard Liege. A scintillating first half where Ajax pressed, passed the ball around quickly, interchanged fluidly and marked tightly saw Kasper Dolberg get onto the scoresheet to seal a more than deserved 1-0 victory. Six points from two games? What a start. What followed next was a double header against the toughest opponents in the group – Celta de Vigo. A 2-2 draw at Estadio Balaídos and a 3-2 victory at the Amsterdam ArenA meant that Ajax had qualified for the next round of the tournament after their fourth game in the group.

Gameday’s 5 and 6 saw Peter Bosz make many changes to his lineup to ensure that the talented ‘kids’ from Jong Ajax step up and gain exposure in European fixtures. A 2-0 victory at home to Panathinaikos and a 1-1 draw away at Liege meant that Ajax kept up their unbeaten streak and ensured that they ended top of the group with 14 points from six games.

Ajax’s Europa League journey thus far has provided such a stark contrast to previous campaigns that it is impossible to overlook the influence of Peter Bosz and his style of play. Furthermore, Ajax’s strength in depth is something to admire. When youngsters like Nouri, van de Beek, de Ligt, Sanchez and Dolberg are able to perform on such occasions and at such a high level, it shows that Ajax are heading in the right direction and that the club in bursting from the seams in terms of talent. The performances of Ajax in the past six games has left all of us wanting more and whilst the tournament will only get trickier as it progresses, who knows how far the Amsterdammers can go? If the team manages to play with the same level of confidence, flair and style; it would take a brave man to bet against them reaching very far. Momentum is a funny old thing. Don’t underestimate it. One thing for sure is that Ajax’s next opponent won’t.

GROUP G

  1. AFC Ajax – 14 points
  2. RC Celta de Vigo – 9 points
  3. R. Standard de Liege – 7 points
  4. Panthinaikos FC – 1 point

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