AMSTERDAM: In the wake of Ajax’s stunning victory against holders Real Madrid in the Champions League last 16, the headlines across Europe were mainly about the new golden generation emerging in Amsterdam.
The club of Johan Cruyff, and of Louis van Gaal’s side that lifted the trophy in 1995, are into their first Champions League quarter-final since 2003 with a team packed with products of their famed youth system.
Midfielder Frenkie de Jong, aged 21 and headed for Barcelona at the end of the season, and 19-year-old defender Matthijs de Ligt are the brightest young stars in a side that triumphed 4-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu.
However, the most decisive player in this Champions League campaign for Ajax – which continues into Thursday morning’s quarter-final first leg against Juventus – is a grizzled veteran by comparison.
Dusan Tadic, at 30, was the oldest member of coach Erik ten Hag’s line-up in Madrid, with the sole exception of 32-year-old Dane Lasse Schoene.
The Serbian international attacker scored one of their goals in Spain, and now has nine altogether in a continental campaign that started with a second qualifying-round win over Sturm Graz.
The goal apart, Tadic’s display in Madrid will be best remembered for that moment in the first half when he escaped Casemiro with a sensational turn.
“As time goes by we will realise what we did, but now we just want to enjoy our football and these things will come. It’s really special,” said Tadic after that match.
Formerly of Groningen and FC Twente, Tadic came back to the Netherlands in an €11.4 million move from Premier League strugglers Southampton last year.
‘Big fish in a small pond’
His signing, and that of Daley Blind, the defender rejoining from Manchester United, highlighted part of the strategy at the Johan Cruyff Arena.
The club’s decision-makers, with former players Edwin van der Sar and Marc Overmars now respectively chief executive and technical director, needed experience to surround the youngsters.
The main goal for Ajax was reclaiming the Dutch title, last won in 2014. Ten Hag’s team are level with PSV Eindhoven at the top of the table with five games left, having recently beaten their rivals 3-1 in Amsterdam. They are into the Dutch Cup final, too.
Tadic has scored 20 league goals, and has added nine assists – those figures make him the most decisive player in the Netherlands since Luis Suarez with Ajax in 2009/10.
“When he signed, he was expected to be the replacement of Hakim Ziyech, but with the Moroccan playmaker still at the club, the two have struck up a partnership that knows no bounds in terms of creativity,” says Michiel Jongsma, a journalist and an editor with sports analysts Opta, covering the Dutch league.
“It seems like he had settled for being a big fish in a smaller pond by returning to the Eredivisie, but with rumours swirling that AC Milan and Manchester City are interested, his head might be turned,” adds Jongsma of Tadic.
Another star turn against Juventus will only increase the chances of big-money offers coming in.
Van der Sar insists Ajax would not need to sell anyway, although the numbers are revealing – the club’s accounts for last year, without a European run, showed revenue of €92 million.
In contrast, Real Madrid topped Deloitte’s most recent Football Money League on €750.9 million. Revenue at Juventus was almost €400 million. Winning a fifth European Cup really would be remarkable for Ajax.
“I always said it is probably not going to happen any more. But, yeah, we’re in the quarter-finals now,” Van der Sar told The Sunday Times.
If Tadic continues his current form, anything is possible.