BEST CHANCE AT A TROPHY IN 2016/17?
I tend to think of myself as a glass half-full type of person, always looking for a silver lining. I see the good in the worst of people and adopt a hopeful, albeit likely unrealistic, view of the world. That being said, even the eternal optimist among us supporters has to feel a shred of doubt creeping in regarding Ajax’s title chances this season. At first, Feyenoord’s bright start to the season was almost cute – repulsive, sure, but almost endearing. It’s comparable to an ex-girlfriend who begins dating someone new. You hate it at first, but after stalking their social media presence for a while and doing some digging, you realise this new suitor really isn’t great at all. You find out about their dating habits through the grapevine and it turns out this person has a habit of cheating – this relationship is not going to last, you tell yourself, and there’s comfort in that. But then a funny thing happens. Months go by and they are still together, and you can only help but wonder: maybe people can change. Maybe history doesn’t always repeat itself.
That’s the feeling I get from Feyenoord’s league campaign this season. The perennial chokers aren’t doing just that. Days, weeks and months go by, and they’re staying the course. Have they really learned from past heartbreak? I can’t help but get the feeling that this is different. There’s an aura about Feyenoord this season, and as much as it pains me to write these words – or even allow this thought to creep in – they seem destined to win the league. It’s a feeling which eerily resembles that of Twente’s 2009/10 title-winning campaign. No matter what Ajax did, there was just no catching them. We beat then 3-0 at the ArenA in February and just as there appears a glimmer of hope, they go on to win eight of their next nine. Destiny is a strong word, and a lot can happen over the next few months, but the parallels are ominous. Harrowing nightmares staring Bryan Ruiz are slowly being replaced by ones featuring Nicolai Jorgensen. It’s a bad dream, but I can’t wake up.
Then, of course, to compound matters, Ajax were dumped from the KNVB Beker by Cambuur in December. It seems a daunting proposition, but Ajax’s best chance at winning their first piece of silverware under Peter Bosz might just come in the less-illustrious, but still admirable, continental competition that is the Europa League.
These are troubling times for the Dutch top-flight.
The league coefficient includes all the points accumulated in the past five European seasons. At the conclusion of the current campaign, points accrued in the 2011/12 season will be rendered useless. This proves problematic for the Eredivisie, who had four teams reach the Europa League knockout stage that season (Ajax, AZ, PSV, Twente), with three of them progressing to the round-of-16 and one, AZ, to the quarter-finals.
With these points gone from the coefficient, the Eredivise drops from the ninth-ranked league to 13th. Only the top-12 leagues have the privilege of their champions qualifying directly for the group stage. This means next season, the Eredivisie winners are under threat of having to qualify for the Champions League group stage for the first time in the new format. While the same process would still be implemented for the runners-up, the Eredivisie would be in danger of losing their second qualification spot should they drop outside the top 15 – a perilously tangible predicament given the recent impotence of their clubs in continental competition.
A deep run from Ajax in the competition, the last remaining hope for the Netherlands, along with AZ, would provide valuable points for the Eredivisie coefficient and restore a bit of pride to a league in desperate need.
Break out the history books for this one. The last time Ajax competed in the knockout stage of the Champions League was in 2006. It’s been over a decade. Now, to be fair, lady luck has not been kind to the Amsterdammers in the group phase, but there’s only so much room for excuses. Switching over to the Europa League, Ajax have flirted with the prospect of a deep run in the competition. This season marks the eighth time in the last nine years in which Ajax have reached the knockout stage of the competition, but only twice have they managed to progress to the round-of-16, and never further. To put it all into perspective, the last time Ajax reached the quarter-finals in continental competition was in the 2002/03 Champions League, where they lost to AC Milan 3-2 on aggregate. Their last semi-final appearance was 20 years ago (1996/97).
There were certain connotations associated with the club in the 1990’s, ones which no longer carry the same weight today. When outsiders and foreigners think of Ajax they have a healthy respect, but it’s a respect which lingers from the days of our ancestors. No one fears the Amsterdammers anymore, and it’s a damn shame. This is a club which needs (read: deserves) to be competing again with Europe’s elite. Now, any triumph in the Europa League would hardly guarantee future success in the Champions League, but it’s a start. It’s a way for the club to restore their image and piece together the fragments of a once admired reputation – a reputation tarnished by a lengthy spell sequestered from the Champions League. I can think of no better place to start than with a run right here, right now, preferably with the aid of a high-profile victory over the likes of a Manchester United, Tottenham or Roma.
This club has been deprived of success on the European stage and it’s reached a boiling point. The Europa League has proved a hindrance in recent years because the club’s reluctance to go all in has left them playing in shallow waters. It’s time to put up or shut up. If they want to be taken seriously, it’s about time they did something about it.
To spare us all from reliving the last few seasons, this can be kept short. Ajax have been on an unsolicited hiatus in the Champions League as a result of their shortcomings in the qualifying phase. They have not appeared in the group stage of Europe’s most prestigious competition since 2014, and with Feyenoord seemingly on their way to a first title in ages, Ajax may just have to win the Europa League to rescue their Champions League dreams.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t relieve another Rapid Wien or Rostov tie come July – summer shouldn’t be so depressing.
By reaching the Europa League round-of-32 as group winners, with four wins and two draws, Ajax have already secured €5,380,000 in unfettered profits – money which can be allocated to producing a better on-field product going forward. The thing is, that number can only grow with each round they progress. Should they go on to win the Europa League, their revenue can increase to a flattering €15,230,000 – nearly the same sum as it took for them to purchase both Hakim Ziyech (€11,000,000) and Davinson Sanchez (€5,000,000).
These funds do not come easy and the opportunity to secure them should not be taken lightly. To compete in this day in age, you need money. While the foundation at clubs such as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich are intrinsically robust, much of their success can be attributed to their financial prowess. In order for Ajax to get back to the level they once competed at, they require a steady stream of profit which can be put back into improving the squad. Whether the money earned from a deep run in the competition is banked or invested remains to be seen, but there will not be much of a choice if they limp to an early exit.