It could have turned out worse, of course. It might have ended up like the last time Ajax took a three-goal lead over a London club in the Champions League. That was last season, when Ajax had a 3-0 aggregate lead over Tottenham Hotspur, going into the second half of the second leg of the semifinal, only for Lucas Moura to score a hat trick and win the thing in the 96th minute.
On Tuesday, Ajax took a 4-1 lead at Chelsea before the hour. Then it somehow managed to get two red cards within the span of a few seconds and surrender three goals. The Amsterdammers were spared a loss by the video assistant referee, which correctly denied what would have been the goal to make it 5-4 to Chelsea.
Just six months on from disintegrating on the doorstep of the Champions League final, Ajax’s European nightmare repeated itself. Now, with two group stage games to go, Chelsea, Ajax and Valencia are all knotted at seven points when a win would have all but assured Ajax’s place in the knockout stages.
Yet the curious thing is that the various Ajax fan accounts were, in the end, delighted with the point. At least Ajax wasn’t left empty-handed again, never mind that it gave away a seemingly insurmountable lead.
Ajax fans were impressed their team had been the better side for an hour and managed to hang on when it was down to nine men. When, in fact, it had even conjured several chances to go ahead on counter-attacks. The referee and his various decisions, not least of them the double-red card, made for an easy scapegoat, a decoy for the frustration and a permission structure to be fine with the spilled points.
And that may seem absurd, to be happy with the point after being ahead 4-1. But then Ajax fans always feel like they’re on borrowed time. That it could all end at any moment, and that extensions to this spell of European relevance are precious and to be cherished.
Because this was how it was supposed to work: Ajax reaches the semifinal of the Champions League for the first time since 1997 and comes within literal seconds of the final. The soccer world takes notice. And the upshot is entirely predictable. Half the team is poached the ensuing summer and the other half would leave the next year. Ajax would be left rebuilding through its academy and young, unknown imports.
This is how it goes. This is how it always goes. Every so often, every decade or so, Ajax gets its blend of prospects and veterans and manager and system just right, gathers some momentum and breaks through in Europe. And then the fat checkbooks are opened up at the superclubs and it’s all over. Then follows a few years of false starts, soul-searching and, eventually, another run.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
It’s the cadence of life as an Ajax fan. Which leaves us – if you’ll allow me to self-identify in this space once again – with a perpetual and existential dread, even when things are going well.
Sure enough, Ajax lost its two best players over the summer, as playmaker Frenkie de Jong left for FC Barcelona and captain-cum-defensive rock Matthijs de Ligt took off to Juventus. But everybody else stayed. Improbably, magically, inexplicably, Nico Tagliafico and David Neres and Donny van de Beek and Hakim Ziyech and Dusan Tadic and Andre Onana all stayed, either signing new contracts or publicly reaffirming their commitment.
A few more will leave next summer, surely. Van de Beek was strongly linked to Real Madrid last summer and won’t be long for the club. Ziyech has been too good for the Eredivisie for a while now. That’s probably true of a few others as well.
But for now, they’re still here. And the manager behind it all, Erik ten Hag, the heavily accented tactical mastermind from the very Eastern border of the country, just paces from Germany, has stayed as well. When the Bayern Munich job opened up on Sunday, ten Hag was instantly considered a favorite to return – he’d been Bayern’s reserve team manager for two years from 2013 to 2015. He quickly indicated that he was flattered but wouldn’t be leaving in the middle of the season.
Ten Hag is staying too.
It’s all temporary. Which is why a point at Chelsea doesn’t feel like such a despairing result, even if logic dictates that it should be scant consolation. At least Ajax still matters.
Looked at one way, this season is an even greater achievement for the club than last year’s implausible push to the brink of the final. Because if Ajax in 2018-2019 proved that it could still compete when soccer’s economics make it almost impossible, Ajax in 2019-20 has shown that it still has some staying power, even as it’s lost two generational talents.
This season, Ajax showed that its reincarnation wasn’t a fluke. And blowing an enormous lead over Chelsea becomes a lot more tolerable when you’re glad to still be there at all.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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