Hopes are high that Ajax's latest "golden generation" can end a five-year wait for a major trophy this season. However, as the club look to recreate the magic of the mid-'90s, modern-day challenges persist.
Ajax have forged a reputation as one of Europe's foremost talent production lines. Along with the help of celebrated club legends off the pitch, their latest "golden generation" have helped the Dutch side to rediscover their identity during a revamp aimed at returning the club to former glories.
In the current climate of modern football, however, keeping and maintaining talent, not producing it, is the issue for Ajax. Sporting director Marc Overmars has even gone as far as to admit that "it will be impossible to keep this team together in the summer."
Overmars was part of Louis van Gaal's side in 1995, which saw Ajax crowned champions of Europe for a fourth time after a 19-year-old Patrick Kluivert came off the bench to score an 85th-minute winner against AC Milan. Other notable names in the Dutch side's starting lineup in Vienna included Frank Rijkaard, Clarence Seedorf, the de Boer brothers and the current Ajax general manager, Edwin van der Saar.
"Our ambition is to regularly reach the quarterfinals of the Champions League," van der Saar said. "Financially we are looking good, we sell out our stadium, we have a worldwide profile and a rock-hard philosophy about the game. I have confidence that we will one day be able to make the jump up to the European elite."
The "Class of 2019" are seen as the most exciting batch of players since the golden generation of '95. Yet, instead of leading the charge to compete with Europe's elite for years to come, the club may have to accept their role as a talent incubator to capitalize on an opportunity to lay an economically sound foundation.
"We are not reaching the €600 million-€700 million ($677 million-$790 million) budget that the top clubs in Europe are making mainly through sponsoring, TV revenue in their country and revenues from the Champions League," said van der Saar back in 2017. The question is: Will they have to sell their brightest talents to close the gap?
Warding off interest
As the Dutch giants look to recreate the magic of the mid-90s, a quarterfinal tie with Juventus offers a timely reminder of a defining time in the club's history. It was against Juve that Ajax fell short of becoming the first side to defend the title in the Champions League era back in 1996.
After a 1-1 draw in normal time, Juventus needed penalties to decide the 1996 Champions League final.
The years that followed saw Ajax's prized assets gradually picked off by Europe's big spenders and, while the likes of Rafael van der Vaart, Johnny Heitinga and Wesley Sneijder came through ranks, Ajax were never able to build a team around their talented graduates. Until now it seems.
It was a process started when now-Leverkusen head coach Peter Bosz placed his faith firmly in youth and began naming lineups with some of the youngest average ages in the Eredivisie and Europe. While titles didn't flow freely, interest in their next generation did.
Justin Kluivert was lost to Roma last summer, while Frenkie de Jong is set to join Barcelona at the end of the current campaign. Furthermore, with Ajax joint top of the Eredivisie and their players proving their value at Europe's top table, first-team regulars such as Matthijs de Ligt, Donny van de Beek and Kasper Dolberg are names that will feature prominently on shopping lists across Europe.
A case of now or never?
Even if their biggest attractions prove impossible to retain, the rebuilding process they've inspired has sparked new life in one of Europe's most storied clubs and helped them rediscover their identity in the modern era.
"Ajax stand for good football, well played out from the defense towards the goal, creativity, audacity," de Jong told uefa.com. " I think you should be able to show your creativity because that is one of the greatest qualities of Dutch football."
It was those qualities that almost caught Bayern Munich cold twice during the group stages and saw Ajax stun 13-time European champions Real Madrid with a scintillating performance in the round of 16.
In the quarterfinal first leg against Juventus, the Dutch giants named no less than seven academy graduates in their matchday squad, five of which featured in the starting lineup and one, Jurgen Ekkelenberg, who came off the bench. The 1-1 draw was another demonstration of their dynamic blend of creativity and bravery, as well as how adept they are at pinning down opponents by swarming them.
The prospect of losing key players in the summer suggests that this season is the club's best chance at returning to the Champions League final for the first time since 1996. To do so though, they'll have to score in Turin where Juve have conceded just 11 times in 20 games in all competitions this season.
"If we play the way we did in Madrid, with a lot of courage, then we have a big chance of winning," said de Jong after the first leg at the Johan Cruyff Arena. "We’ve done well so far in the Champions League, and we’re not done yet."
Continuing their European adventure would make Ajax's young guns a more prominent feature in the shop window, but the silver lining is that the increased value could help secure a long-term future at the top.