What an atmosphere it proved to be at the storied Johan Cruijff Arena as Champions League football returned to the Netherlands. The stadium smelled of success, tradition and history as all sorts of colourful banners were decked out as Ajax Amsterdam took on champions Real Madrid.
Indeed, the occasion wasn't much of a surprise as the last time the Dutch giants reached this stage of the competition was in 2003 thus the grandeur that accompanied it with fans knowing how much of a bonus it was for their team to qualify for the last-16. Notable faces of past Ajax and Dutch greats also added a sense of success that Ajax has longed crave for on the European stage as Van Der Vaart, Frank De Boer and Patrick Kluivert were several of the faces who had turned up, to lend their support.
Significantly, the home team needed all the support they could get given their underdog status but as soon as the referee blew his whistle to commence the game, the script was re-written as Ajax's young stars put on a performance for the ages. Erik ten Hag's charges had a clear gameplan and it was to press Madrid with intensity as Ajax' players pressured Madrid's players relentlessly making Madrid struggle to get out of their own half.
Future Barcelona player Frankie De Jong alongside the mercurial Hakim Ziyech put in a midfield masterclass especially, as they never allowed Luka Modric and Toni Kroos to play their game. In fact, this was how the first half faired as the Spanish side had to defend for their lives, such was the intensity of Ajax's pressing. Additionally, all that was missing from Ajax's hard work was a goal but their build-up in the final third let them down. However, they would soon go close with Dusan Tadic, whose effort rattled off the crossbar but the main talking point in the first half would be when VAR chalked off Nicolas Tagliafico's goal and again we see how UEFA tends to conspire in helping the top teams get the rub of the green.
Ajax would soon go on to rue their missed chances and the effect of VAR in the second half as Madrid with all their experience scored through Karim Benzema, however, the resilience of this young team was not to be denied and Ziyech would soon level the scoreline at 1-1. But then again with youth, comes a sense of naivety and Ajax paid the price for it when their gung-ho approach backfired as Los Blancos scored controversially through Marco Asensio deep into the game. Whether that goal should have stood, will no doubt be up for debate after the foul on De Jong.
While the night ended in a disappointing 2-1 defeat for Ajax, the whole of Europe and football neutrals, in particular, will be immensely proud of how Ajax performed. More importantly, they showed the rest of Europe how to compete despite lacking commercial clout. The Champions League in recent times have been dominated solely by the bigwigs due to their financial power and it has made the competition dull. Europe's elite club competition needs to have the full range of European teams back once again and these means clubs from Italy, Netherlands and Portugal, for example, to start competing once again. It will certainly make the whole competition romantic and pure once again.
Ajax showed that the way to do that is by investing in youth and that seems to be the only feasible solution at this point for clubs lacking financial power. When you have your club captain at only 19 years of age in Matthijs De Ligt, it means power is given to the youth, and against Madrid, we saw the full effects of what youth power can do. Granted, Ajax may not progress further in Europe and keeping this team of talented Ajax players will pose a huge challenge, but constantly investing in youth can offset such a problem.
Alan Hansen once mentioned to Sir Alex Ferguson, "You will never win anything with kids." We all know what happened after that.