They promised so much on their journey to a first European final in 21 years, but Ajax fell flat when it came to the decisive clash against Manchester United in Stockholm on Wednesday.
After a nervy opening for the Amsterdammers, Paul Pogba's strike all but sealed the ending of their exciting campaign just 18 minutes in. In awe of their opponents, Ajax just could not settle at the Friends Arena.
Theirs was the youngest ever starting XI in the final of a European competition and they also boasted the youngest ever finalist playing at centre-back, and at times it seemed like boys against men.
Of all the factors in the result, the gap in spending between the two sides – United’s £455 million over three seasons vs Ajax’s £379m since 1945 – illustrated the difference in how these two sides were built before kick-off. While the English side collect global icons at will, Ajax refrain from buying fully developed players as they buy young and sell young.
That difference can be seen in the expectation heading into this game, too. The pressure was on Mourinho and his Red Devils, anything else would have been a failure amid an underwhelming season.
All that swept Amsterdam, however, was excitement. Though they have just ended the season without a trophy, the 100,000 fans who turned up to watch the game in the capital city will remain proud of their heroes.
The only thing they might grudge is the flaccid performance. For a side that has taken immense pride in their entertaining displays on their quest for a first European trophy in 22 years, they hardly turned up for Wednesday’s encounter.
Their most experienced players went missing. Lasse Schone was stationary in midfield and offered no protection, Davy Klaassen had no influence and did not pick up Paul Pogba as he charged into space to open the scoring, while Joel Veltman was shaky at right-back throughout.
That was the tone of Ajax’s game, where even their best players were limited. Davinson Sanchez was calm at the back but ineffective in building the play, Hakim Ziyech pressed and dropped deep but had little options ahead of him, while Bertrand Traore looked capable of creating danger but was surrounded by United defenders and snuffed out when he burst forward.
Meanwhile, striker Kasper Dolberg was rarely involved before being withdrawn after 60 minutes and Amin Younes did little constructive. Young centre-back Matthijs De Ligt, though, showed why he has been rated so highly and already a first-team regular at 17-years-old.
From the beginning, the Eredivisie side just seemed nervous. As they moved further upfield, passes were usually overhit or just misplaced as the free man was difficult to identify. They were predictable, too, always going through the centre and not really looking for a way around the hefty United presence that just had to hold position.
“If I’m honest, a win wasn’t on the cards today,” Bosz said after the game. “We couldn't play our game today because Utd played long balls. It was a boring game with no chances for both sides.
"The disappointment is huge, for me too, but when you look at the whole campaign, you have to collect your medal with your head held high.”
Though Ajax simply failed to adapt to that, there was a clear hindrance to Ajax in that this is almost an entirely new team. Starters Andre Onana, Sanchez, De Ligt, Ziyech and Traore all came into the side during the season, while Jairo Riedewald has hardly featured. That this is a team progressing has been clear all season under Bosz. They have become more efficient and electrifying over the course of the campaign. However, it can only carry them so far and such familiarity makes a difference when it comes to trying to put together intricate passes in tight spaces, which was needed around United’s box.
It would have proved a truly epic fairytale had the Sons of the Gods got the better of the Red Devils, but in the end the expectation was too great for a side still growing together. Regardless of their loss, these young players will remain heroes in Amsterdam.