Ajax v Real Madrid: Five stars who could follow De Jong into the big time
It is almost 22 years since Tijani Babangida delicately chipped Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jose Molina in the 119th minute at Vicente Calderon, sending Louis van Gaal's Ajax into the Champions League semi-finals.
The date was March 19, 1997, and it was the last time the club won a knockout tie in Europe’s most prestigious cup competition – two months before Frenkie de Jong was born. He was eight, playing youth football in Tilburg, the last time they reached the round of 16.
Now 21, the man referred to as the next Johan Cruyff and the future of Netherlands football – comparisons that make the midfielder humbly uncomfortable – is tasked with leading a bid to dethrone the three-time defending champions.
Real Madrid will have the pleasure of seeing De Jong up close for the first time on Wednesday, but certainly not the last ahead of his record €75million move to Barcelona in June.
Revered for his hypnotic dribbling, widescreen vision, savvy passing and a football acumen well beyond his years, De Jong is the fulcrum of an Ajax side unbeaten through 12 Champions League matches this season. But, while the Camp Nou-bound technician is the headline act, he is complemented by the most talented group of players to grace the club in over a decade.
De Jong's impending transfer is expected to be the first domino in a predicted mass exodus from the Johan Cruyff Arena later this year. Despite a worrying recent slump in the Eredivisie, going toe-to-toe with Madrid grants De Jong's talented team-mates a chance to announce themselves to Europe's footballing public and put its elite clubs on notice.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT
If Frenkie de Jong is the spine of this Ajax team, Matthijs de Ligt is the heart. An animated and fearless leader in defence, the skipper's rare ability is only exceeded by his unrivaled passion. De Ligt is a modern day centre-back with old school tendencies – a strong reader of the game who excels on the ball and is always keen to impose his physical presence. He possesses every quality necessary to reach the pinnacle of his craft.
The one knock on the 19-year-old is he has a tendency to overcomplicate things at times. He shoulders a lot of responsibility, sometimes biting off more than he can chew. He needs to trust more in his team-mates and learn to simplify things – a quality that will undoubtedly come with age. Ajax are set to cash in on De Ligt at the end of the season. With Juventus, PSG and Barcelona circling, the club are expected to receive a fee in the region of what the Blaugrana paid for De Jong.
Ajax conceded 10 goals in the two games Tagliafico missed with a knee injury last month, more than they had in the entire first half of the Eredivisie season. A plug-it-and-forget-it name on the team sheet for coach Erik ten Hag, the left-back is a furiously tenacious defender despite his diminutive stature.
Tagliafico was not renowned for his attacking abilities when he left Independiente in his native Argentina last January, but the 26-year-old has flourished in Ajax's attacking system. While the defensive side of his game remains his strongest attribute, his desire to get forward offers Dusan Tadic the flexibility to roam inside and yielded three goals in five Champions League group matches. The likes of Arsenal and Atletico Madrid are reported to have taken note.
If Ajax are to unlock the Real Madrid defence, Ziyech will be the key. A wonderfully enterprising figure in midfield, the Moroccan playmaker makes Ajax tick – the type of player who can put the team on his back and completely take over a game. His exceptional vision allows him to split defences with his long-passing ability. Never afraid to take on a defender, his fierce left foot means goalkeepers must be on high alert for long-range shots.
Ziyech will be relishing the opportunity to go up against Los Blancos. Blessed with outstanding technical gifts and rarely lacking in confidence, the 25-year-old boasts 12 goals and eight assists in 18 Eredivisie matches this season.
While Ziyech will be called upon to create the goals, Onana will be tasked with keeping them out. The Cameroon goalkeeper has consistently improved since arriving at De Toekomst in 2015. The 22-year-old's long frame and sharp reflexes make him an excellent shot-stopper, but it's his play on the ball that makes him so valuable. Onana's excellent distribution is a key component in helping Ajax to break down their opponents' first line of defence.
And while the magnitude of the occasion is incentive enough, Onana should have a bit of added motivation having been reared at Barcelona's academy.
DONNY VAN DE BEEK
Perhaps the most undervalued and least publicised name on this list, Van de Beek embodies Ajax's fighting spirit. Often overlooked by those unfamiliar with his body of work, the 21-year-old boasts an unwavering desire and never lacks in intensity. His passion makes him something of a fans' favourite and he has the ability to match.
The Ajax youth product is astute in his reading of the game, displaying refreshingly direct passing and excellent movement off the ball. 'Maradonny' often embarks on powerful, probing runs to carve out scoring opportunities. Composed in tight spaces, he also has the cool head required to make his signature late runs into the box count. It is no surprise the likes of Chelsea, Tottenham and Roma are among Van de Beek's rumoured admirers.