Tuesday 17 September 2019

Sam Wallace: 'Ajax expose flaws in plan to make Champions League a closed shop'


Ajax players celebrate after their stunning victory in Turin. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Ajax players celebrate after their stunning victory in Turin. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Sam Wallace

Like all great cup runs for the most famous underdogs in history, the Champions League adventure of Ajax Amsterdam began when the rest were hardly watching, 10 days after the World Cup final was played, with a home win over Sturm Graz on July 25 last year.

The play-off rounds for the competition - while the modern big guns of Europe are contemplating pre-season tours - are a trip around the ghosts of the old European Cup. Ajax beat Graz 5-1 on aggregate and, six days later, went to Standard Liege, where they drew 2-2 before winning the home leg.

Their next play-off was against Dynamo Kiev, whose status as the second-placed team in Ukraine the previous season entitled them to play one fewer qualifying round than Ajax, the second-placed team in the Eredivisie.

The second leg of that tie, a 0-0 away draw for Ajax in the same city that had hosted the Champions League final three months earlier, was their final step into the group stage of a competition that would not start until mid-September for everyone else.

They had played six games in 34 days, travelled to three countries as well as beginning their domestic season and, somehow, eight months after they began, they are in the final four.

Adjustment They are not the current Dutch champions, as they were so often in the Seventies, when for three years Ajax were kings of Europe. Which is not to say that under the format of the modern Champions League, Uefa makes it easy for Dutch clubs.

Not even the Eredivisie champions have a guaranteed Champions League group-stage place. This season, they did not even have a guaranteed play-off place until champions PSV Eindhoven benefited from an adjustment.

The winners of the Champions League and the Europa League, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, had already qualified by virtue of their league positions, so seven countries were bumped up.

Before that, even the Dutch champions would have had to play a minimum of two rounds just to reach the group stage.

Which is a long way of saying that Holland's best clubs begin their season very far away from the semi-finals of the Champions League, although even those long odds have not prevented Erik ten Hag's young team from getting there, ransacking some serious reputations along the way.

As of last summer, the Dutch league was rated by Uefa the joint-12th best in Europe alongside Switzerland - and there is a price to pay for that.

The price is that you slip further away over the years, the great wealth of the biggest clubs becomes ever more difficult to match and your brand exposure - to mention a preoccupation of Andrea Agnelli, the Juventus president - can take one hell of a hit. Even so, Ajax have proved that shaking up the elite is still possible.

When a club have eliminated Real Madrid and Juventus in a triumph of youth, collectivism and ingenuity, it feels like there is life in the competition yet.

But for how long? The year zero for the Champions League is 2024, when broadcast cycles close, the international match calendar is reset and Agnelli and others want to tear it up and start again. They prefer a Champions League of four groups of eight and a collective of teams in which historical power and performance have a greater say in qualification.

There are few clear plans yet but there have been leaked suggestions, including the relegation of just eight clubs a year from the 32, with four promoted from the Europa League and four more from the domestic leagues.

The key prize will be those guaranteed spots and Dutch football is already far back in a long queue. There are currently 11 domestic leagues ahead of them, encompassing the traditional powers Spain, England, Germany and Italy, as well as France, Russia, Portugal, Ukraine, Belgium, Turkey and the Czech Republic.

Ajax's performance this year will have moved the dial a bit for Dutch football, but what they have achieved this season is at odds with the kind of new competition that is being envisaged by the most powerful clubs in Europe.

The Premier League's big six are hardly ruling out change and Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman at Manchester United, holds a senior position at the European Club Association, the group through which Agnelli is driving change. But this is primarily being pushed from outside England as a means of reducing the wealth deficit to the Premier League.

Ajax have managed to keep together a group of relatively young players long enough to develop them into a side capable of going from three rounds of qualifying all the way to the semi-finals. The more barriers in the way of a club like theirs, traditionally plundered by richer rivals, the less likely they can keep a team intact long enough to make an impact.

If it takes two seasons to navigate entry to the elite of 32 clubs, via whatever promotion system that Agnelli and the rest of the ECA can dream up, then that may well turn out to be time that a club such as Ajax do not have.

Splintering This team are already splintering, with the departure of Frenkie de Jong unlikely to be the only one - just as the fine Monaco side of 2017 went their separate ways after their Champions League semi-final adventure.

The essence of cup football is that fortunes change in the course of one season. Although gruelling, the qualification rounds for the Champions League at least offer that in the current format, and every once in a while a brilliant side take advantage.

It will not have been lost on Ajax that it is Juventus and Agnelli who are most enthusiastic for a Champions League that is short on surprises and long on greater certainty for the bigger clubs.

The odds on defeating that kind of outcome through the endless meetings, deals and alliances of the elite are, sadly, much longer than the relatively straightforward task of beating the big teams on the pitch. (© Daily Telegraph, London)


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