No happy ending to Ajax fairytale: Devastated Dutch side now set to be decimated by transfers

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More than two decades after the last great Ajax side conquered Europe, Erik ten Hag's men suffered the cruellest of semi-final defeats against Spurs

The fairytale ultimately ended in heartbreak.

Ajax were on the verge of making history with their first Champions League final for 23 years, but instead were left devastated by an extraordinary Tottenham comeback that sealed the north Londoners' first-ever appearance in the showpiece.

The prodigious leadership of Matthijs de Ligt and a worthy support staff of young hopefuls, middle-of-the-road professionals and wise old heads put the Dutchmen in a commanding position, but thanks to Lucas Moura's heroics it was not quite enough.

The tears flowed at full-time as the hosts contemplated defeat and a missed opportunity they may never again get a chance to repeat.

In May 1995, Ajax confirmed their status as the finest team on the planet by dispatching a star-studded Milan 1-0 in Vienna.

Twelve months later captain Danny Blind narrowly missed out on lifting famous trophy for a second time, as Juventus prevailed in a nail-biting penalty shoot-out. In the interim, meanwhile, a case heard in the European Court of Justice was close to ensuring such a feat might never happen again.

The famous Bosman ruling changed the world of football forever, handing players across Europe new freedoms and stacking the deck heavily against the continent's less financially powerful. Ajax, a big fish in the small pond of the Eredivisie, were hit harder than most.

Over the next three years, the team that had twice battled to the Champions League showpiece was systematically gutted, with the likes of Edwin van der Sar, Marc Overmars, the De Boer brothers, Edgar Davids and Patrick Kluivert all leaving for the comparative riches of England, Italy and Spain.

The phenomenon was repeated across Europe, with predictable results. From 1996 to 2018, the Champions League final has been disputed 42 times by clubs from England, Italy, Spain and Germany, the 2003-4 clash between Porto and Monaco the sole occasion that other nations have managed to break that monopoly.

This wonderful Ajax side, though, refused to play to the script, thrilling the world with the twin feats of knocking out reigning champions Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo's Juventus. They deserved to go to the final.

However, Tottenham proved a bridge too far, with Mauricio Pochettino's men following Liverpool's lead with an incredible resurgence from three goals down, to go through on away goals.

De Ligt looked set to be the night's hero.

At 19, the central defender is already performing at an exceptional level, opening the scoring with a fine header and proving an impassable obstacle for the weakened Spurs attack. A near-perfect first half was rounded off by a passing move straight out of the Ajax manual and finished by Hakim Ziyech with a fine finish.

But while the Johan Cruyff Arena was dreaming of a repeat of their glory days, Lucas had other ideas.

The Brazilian smashed three unanswered strikes past Andre Onana, the last deep into injury time, in the second half to turn the tables. Consequently, this young, enterprising Ajax team thus fell just short of emulating and perhaps even surpassing those illustrious players who came before them.

Hakim Ziyech, Dusan Tadic, Ajax

It is easy to draw parallels with that previous golden generation, down to the defender named Blind wearing the captain's armband (Danny's son, Daley), but they are largely misleading.

In 1995 and 1996, Ajax's crop of academy superstars were already nearing their peak, with Van der Sar, the De Boers and Overmars relative veterans at the ages of 24 and 25.

This team are near-novices in comparison, with many in their first or second seasons of regular first-team action and wholly unfamiliar with the elite level of the Champions League knockout stages.

Perhaps that inexperience was what in the end led to their downfall, as they failed to close out a result which should have been beyond Spurs' grasp and allowed the dangerous opposition a way back into the game.

Their time together is also likely to be fleeting.

De Jong's move to Barca is already inked, while every act of heroism De Ligt displays only raises the asking price a little higher for his many suitors.

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This incredible Ajax season will likely end with others leaving and a fine team decimated, with no guarantee those chosen in replacement will reach the same heights.

There is, therefore, a rather bittersweet feeling to watching Ajax take on football's aristocrats and (almost) win, knowing that this most probably was this side's last hurrah.

Perhaps all we can do is sit back and reflect on this amazing story, as evidence that romance in the sport is not quite dead yet. Maybe there's some consolation in that...

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