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Why it’s time to take Ajax seriously as Champions League contenders

Take a look at Ajax’s table and your first impression may not be that of the awaited European champions. A team made up of Premier League renovation projects, Dutch veterans and young talent just beginning to flourish on the continent is not the blueprint for the Champions League.

West Ham beat Sebastien Haller to top the scoring charts? A 38-year-old goalkeeper who has spent part of his career warming up the bench in the Eredivisie keeping a clean sheet in two of four games? Has a veteran winger in Steven Berghuis turned into one of the competition’s biggest devastation? You can hardly call it a blueprint to dispute.

However, give Erik ten Hag’s side – who won 2-1 against Besiktas on Wednesday – the best glimpses when checking their statistical record, and it is clear that this is a team worth watching. seriously considered. They have moved to the top of Group C, one of three teams with 5 wins from 5 matches. The last time a Dutch team won their first five European Cup matches, Johann Cruyff and teammates lifted the trophy in Rotterdam. Admittedly it was Feyenoord who got through the first few rounds of that particular tournament but it was Ajax who won the Total Football tournament.

This team isn’t quite at that level but it sounds like you should say that before anyone gets too popular. It is certain that they will turn out to be a team of at least the same quality as the one Ten Hag guided in Lucas Moura’s goal in the 2019 Champions League final. That squad is filled with bright, youthful things. – Donny van de Beek, Frenkie De Jong and Matthijs de Ligt were wiped out by richer clubs in the months that followed – but aside from Real Madrid’s thrashing at the Santiago Bernabeu, they managed to do just that. unlike the oppressive winning streak that this Ajax team had.

Five group stage games, the Dutch champions are the second-highest scorer in the Champions League so far with 13 goals, a goal-per-game ratio that looks low compared to their flamboyant comeback rate. 42 of 13 Eredivise games so far. They have the second-highest expected number of non-penalty goals in the league (xG) per 90 minutes behind Manchester City, more expected assists than Bayern by a margin of six per cent and generated the most chances in the group stage. In most offensive stats you’re interested in checking the four teams that are ahead of their opponents: Liverpool, Bayern, Man City and Ajax.

While their offensive stats place them alongside Robert Lewandowski and his teammates, their defense isn’t too shabby either. They have only conceded three goals, although perhaps they are giving up more chances than Chelsea. Opponents have an aggregate zero penalty difference of 4.96, not quite compared to Thomas Tuchel and teammates but still an impressive comeback after five games. Both of their goalkeepers have saved more than one goal in the group stage according to Opta metrics – a measure of the number of goals a player concedes compared to xG shots they have faced – with Remko Pasveer second only Odysseas Vlachodimos in that particular metric.

With all this statistical excellence, you can make a point: but what about the competition? If Ten Hag’s team continues to win with ease, isn’t that just a sign that Group C is a cake race? Admittedly UEFA has not played the Eredivisie champions against any of Europe’s super-big teams but Borussia Dortmund, Sporting and Besiktas should, in theory, not offer easy games. Except that’s a lot of things Ajax have been trying to build for themselves. Sportswear was created by Haller and company to look especially casual in Game 1. Their recent form in this competition shows they are anything but.

Similarly, the Bundesliga’s second strongest team looks like Fortuna Sittard or Vitesse on a trip to the Johann Cruyff Arena. Opponents can play extremely well, as Besiktas did tonight, and still be beaten by the best Ajax they can. At a time when defending champions Turkey appear to be looking to make it difficult for the Dutch backline, Georges-Kevin N’Koudou regularly finds space in the back of the left wing to create a chance for dangerous Cyle Larin. dangerous.

Ten Hag has rotated his team with Haller, Jurrien Timber and Daley Blind on the bench from outside while Antony, who ranks alongside Lewandowski and Tadic as one of the league’s best players so far. Now, there isn’t any possibility. A side with their six name changes didn’t really impress in the first half – although they still made enough of 0.84xG in that span – but it’s a sign of a heavyweight they have can respond to such failures in the assertive fashion Ajax did on Wednesday.

They go back to what is right for them, Haller in the lead and Tadic plotting to the left. Besiktas probably prepared for that but there was no answer for this side as the Ivory Coast international scored 8 and 9 in the group stage. No one has scored more than five games in their Champions League career.

Ten Hag said: “I like the return of my players. “We fell at half-time but we showed great attitude in the second half. It was not easy, especially against Besiktas, with their supporters. But we did. was able to turn it around and it’s a good feeling, it gives us confidence.”

The 2-1 win in Istanbul may not have been as eye-catching as the jubilant victories over Sporting and Dortmund but it was no less encouraging. Ajax have spent most of the group stage showing how they can outperform their best players at the height of their power. Against the Besiktas, a weakened side got the job done, albeit with a little help from their big names.

It’s another feather on Ajax’s hat. A curious mid-tier veteran cast, untested talent, and an odd takeover from 2019 isn’t going to be so good. Discount them from winning all when you are in danger.

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https://www.cbssports.com/soccer/news/why-its-time-to-take-ajax-seriously-as-a-champions-league-title-contender/ Why it’s time to take Ajax seriously as Champions League contenders

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