Many of the stars who took Ajax to within seconds of the Champions League final in 2019 have moved on, but coach Erik ten Hag remained at the helm and the Dutch side are once again proving a star attraction in the competition.
Ajax go to Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday top of Champions League Group C with three wins out of three and 11 goals scored.
With Ivory Coast striker Sebastien Haller in unstoppable form, they put five past Sporting in Lisbon and hammered Dortmund 4-0 in Amsterdam a fortnight ago. On Wednesday they could secure a place in the round of 16 already.
That would be impressive for a club operating outside Europe’s big five leagues, and without the financial advantages enjoyed by the continent’s elite.
Ajax boast a great history, something immediately clear on entering the Johan Cruyff Arena –- it is not just Cruyff but players like Marco van Basten, Jari Litmanen, Clarence Seedorf, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wesley Sneijder whose pictures adorn the walls of the stadium.
The four-time European Cup winners had little choice but to sell the biggest stars of their run to the semi-finals in 2019, when they were deprived a place in the final by a goal by Tottenham Hotspur’s Lucas Moura in the sixth minute of injury time.
Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt, Donny van de Beek and Hakim Ziyech were the leading names to depart.
Dusan Tadic was among those who stayed, but most importantly so did Ten Hag.
‘One of the best’
“Our coach is obsessed by football, he is a perfectionist,” Haller, who has 13 goals this season including six in Europe, told German magazine Kicker.
“He is without doubt one of the best coaches in the world. He has a great future ahead of him.”
Ten Hag might be at his peak now.
The 51-year-old was appointed in 2017 after doing an impressive job at Utrecht.
Before that he had a spell as an assistant to Steve McClaren at Twente, helping lay the groundwork for the Englishman to win the Dutch title in 2010.
Ten Hag went on to spend time in charge of Bayern Munich’s reserves, his spell in Bavaria coinciding with that of Pep Guardiola.
Now Ten Hag’s name is mentioned in connection with vacancies –- real or potential — at clubs in some of those bigger leagues, from Barcelona to Manchester United and Newcastle United.
However, he is under contract in Amsterdam until 2023 and is aware the grass may not be greener elsewhere.
“No other club can offer me the same comfort in my job and I am convinced that, in the coming years, we can look the biggest clubs in the eye and be on the same level as them,” he said last year.
A club that went through some troubled times in the last two decades is in rude health under the stewardship of Edwin van der Sar, their ex-goalkeeper turned CEO.
Ajax continue to lean heavily on their youth academy, ‘De Toekomst’, and players like Ryan Gravenberch and Jurrien Timber represent the emerging generation.
They are complemented by experienced players such as Tadic, Daley Blind, Davy Klaassen and Steven Berghuis, who controversially moved from bitter rivals Feyenoord in the close season.
The big star, though, is Haller, signed from West Ham United for 22.5 million euros ($27.5m) last January.
“I have never felt as strong as I do now,” he told Kicker. “I have been so happy since I came to Ajax and now I am playing in the Champions League. It is a dream come true.”
Under Ten Hag, Ajax are two points clear atop the Eredivisie from PSV Eindhoven, who they recently beat 5-0.
They are scoring goals for fun, notably putting nine past Cambuur, and are seeking a third Dutch title in four seasons.
There is unlikely to be a more entertaining game in Europe this week than that in Dortmund. Under Ten Hag, Ajax are always worth watching.