In an age of the biggest clubs dominating elite European competition it is easy to forget the clubs that upset the established order. In this series we will be casting our minds back to those plucky underdogs that made us fall in love with football again and what became of their stars.
It seems fitting that the first club we come to is one with a history of breaking with convention. The fathers of Total Football in the 1970’s recently money has had the final say, with the club becoming a finishing school for some of Europe’s finest players. Marco Van Basten, Johan Cruyff, Frank De Boer and Luis Suarez, its alumni rivals any in world football.
In 2017 Ajax under manager Peter Bosz dared to dream once more, exciting fans on their way to a Europa League final against Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United. Falling short at the final hurdle, Ajax’s efforts were ultimately overshadowed but their no compromise attacking style of football, packed full of burgeoning raw talent won them many fans and ultimately as we shall see, admirers along the way.
André Onana (Ajax)
Despite persistent interest elsewhere Cameroonian international André Onana still plays his football in the Dutch capital. Establishing himself as one of Europe’s hottest prospects he has amassed over 200 appearances for the club, all before his 25th birthday. Sources have reported the goalkeeper is ‘dreaming of a Premier League move’, with both Chelsea and Tottenham linked in January. He will be hoping for better showcases than his most recent trip to the UK, misjudging the flight of the ball to allow Curtis Jones to win the Champions League clash for Liverpool in December.
Joel Veltman (Brighton & Hove Albion)
Brighton fans will cite the impact Veltman has made in shoring up a once leaky defence and his skills are built on a decade long apprenticeship in Amsterdam. Now 29, Veltman played 246 times for Ajax, ten of these throughout the Europa League campaign, and has steadily amassed 27 appearances for the Dutch national side. A steady eddy throughout his career Graham Potter will be hoping he continues his consistency without drawing too much attention from better endowed suitors.
Davinson Sanchez (Tottenham Hotspur)
Given his recent inconsistencies at Spurs it is easy to forget that the Colombian international was once one of Europe’s most sought-after defenders, his signing in North London a genuine coup in the summer of 2017. The run to the Europa League final was in his one and only campaign with Ajax, joining from Colombian side Atlético Nacional at the start of the season. He would score six times that season including a spectacular bicycle kick versus AZ. Spurs fans will be hoping for a return to form for a defender who is still only 24, though after four seasons in the capital patience is starting to wear thin.
Matthijs De Ligt (Juventus)
At 17 years and 285 days old, the Dutch centre back became the youngest player ever to play in a major European final, quite rightly catapulting his name into almost every major European club’s wish list. He would stay at Ajax for two more seasons, steadily growing his reputation to the point where he simply could stay no longer. 2018 winner of the Golden Boy award, by the summer of 2019 he had sparked a frenzy which culminated in a €75 million transfer to Juventus, choosing the Italian side over Man Utd amongst others. Still only 21 it is almost ludicrous to think he has already amassed 192 club appearances and will be hoping he can form a Champions League winning backbone in Turin, though they will have to overturn a deficit against Porto in the return leg.
Jairo Riedewald (Crystal Palace)
One of the least heralded players in the starting line-up left back Jaïro Riedewald has enjoyed a stop-start introduction to English football. Now in his fourth season with Crystal Palace the Dutchman has finally established himself in South London, though has done so in the centre of midfield. Roy Hodgson seems to have finally found the position which suits his game, winning Palace’s player of the Month in October. At 24 he will be hoping to build on his early promise.
Davy Klaassen (Ajax)
When Davy Klaassen signed with Everton and was quickly spotted partying with fans in the city, fans of the Toffees took the centre midfielder to their hearts. Unfortunately for Klaassen his moves on the dancefloor couldn’t be replicated on the pitch, making only seven Premier League appearances. Two seasons with Werder Bremen followed where the Dutchman has rebuilt his career, before a return home at the start of this season to the Eredivisie. His goalscoring form has returned and Klaassen will hope to win a fourth Eredivisie title at the end of May. Ajax currently sit 6 points clear at the top with a game in hand. Now 28 it remains to be seen whether Klaassen will chance his arm abroad once more or build on a burgeoning reputation at a club in which he is revered.
Lasse Schöne (Heerenveen)
Danish international midfielder Schöne was an anomaly in an Ajax side mostly finding their feet in professional football. Just three days past his 31st birthday, Lasse was enjoying his fifth season with the club and would be a regular starter across seven seasons, before leaving in 2019 to join Genoa in Serie A. In that time he had scored 64 times in 287 appearances and won six titles with the Dutch club, a period in which he won the majority of his 50 caps for the national side. Fondly remembered by Ajax fans, he has recently signed with Heerenveen and scored on his debut.
Hakim Ziyech (Chelsea)
Signed from Twente in the summer of 2016, Ziyech was granted the opportunity to display his talents on the European stage. An impressive goal scoring record he proved equally adept as a provider with the video below coinciding with interest reaching fever pitch. Four seasons he would spend at the Dutch club, scoring 49 goals in 165 appearance before Chelsea secured his signature. A €40-million-man Ziyech hit the ground running, scoring in his first two starts for Chelsea but the West London club are still waiting to get the best out of the Moroccan international now six months down the line. Soon to be 28 the next few years are crucial for a player many tout as one of Europe’s finest wingers.
Bertrand Traoré (Aston Villa)
When Traoré started the Europa League final, he was doing so on loan from Chelsea. Four goals in eleven Europa League appearances he was an integral and destructive cog in a fluent machine. The Burkina Faso striker would leave Chelsea for good that summer, making the move to France and three productive seasons with Lyon. Signed by Villa in the summer of 2020, five goals in his last twelve appearances point to a striker now finding his feet at a Premier league club willing to make him one of their main men.
Kasper Dolberg (Nice)
In the summer of 2017 Dolberg was destined for the top. 23 goals in his first season in Holland he had been the focal point of the Ajax goalscoring machine and had done so all at the tender age of 19. When like De Ligts, he decided to stay few could begrudge his decision, one made with his long-term development in mind. He would move on but now wasn’t the time. His value would only rise. What happened next few could predict. Nine goals in his next season, twelve in 2018/19. Ajax’s prize asset was starting to diminish in value. With a contract winding down, Ajax cashed in, selling Dolberg to Nice for 20.5 million euros. Ajax had played transfer chess and on this occasion lost.
Eleven goals in twenty-three appearances in his first season, Dolberg is starting to finding his feet and just like in 2017 is one prolific season from a transfer to Europe’s elite.
Amin Younis (Eintracht Frankfurt)
In 2017 Younis was playing out of his skin, forcing his way into Germany’s squad and scoring twice in only five appearances. Things had clicked. And yet four years down the line this marks the high point in the 27-year-old’s career, one that has since taken him to Napoli on a free transfer and now Eintracht Frankfurt on a two year long loan.
At the time of writing, things are starting to turn. Fourth in the Bundesliga ahead of Dortmund, the Champions League is within reach and in Younis they have a winger who has found consistency and could once more prove his worth on the European stage.
The bench that day:
Diederik Boer (now retired)
Kenny Tete (Fulham)
Heiko Westermann (retired)
Frenkie De Jong (Barcelona)
Donny van de Beek (Manchester United)
Justin Kluivert (RB Leipzig on loan from Roma)
David Neres (Ajax)