By 90Min
September 19, 2018

There are recognisable names everywhere you look. 

When a team commanded by Danny Blind and the De Boer brothers beat AC Milan 1-0 in Vienna on that May evening in 1995, neither would have believed one might manage the other’s son in the competition years later.

Then again, perhaps they would. After all, Ajax has long been a club known for its consistent bloodlines; only this summer another name from that 1995 final squad list departed the club when young Justin Kluivert moved to AS Roma. Frank De Boer and (Daley) Blind’s 2014/15 campaign was Ajax’s last at Europe’s top table, until they return this Wednesday.

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(Above: Ajax celebrate winning the 1995 Champions League final)

Since then, the former has enjoyed a miserably fruitless managerial career, while the latter has flattered to deceive at Manchester United. This summer, though, Blind has returned to an Ajax that looks slightly different from the one that raised he and his father.

Young coach Erik ten Hag, for example, is not of Ajax heritage; perhaps this is working in his favour. His young, fast and effective team is yet to lose a game in the Eredivisie this season, and although they sit two points behind perfect-starters PSV, they have also impressed in a Champions League qualification process riddled with banana skins. 

To get to their first group stage in four years, they have already had to beat Sturm Graz, Standard Liege and Dynamo Kyiv.

Four years ago, the omnipotent Champions League gods of fate did not smile upon De Boer. His side was handed a group with Barcelona and PSG, meaning that once they failed to beat Cypriot competition minnows APOEL in their second game, the campaign was already as good as finished. With Ajax-esque symmetry, the only game they will enter as favourites this time around will be against the Greek outfit AEK Athens on Wednesday.

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(Above: Hakim Ziyech has picked up from where he left off before the World Cup)

But in order to progress they will probably have to get results from at least two of their matches against Benfica and Bayern Munich. Nevertheless, there are reasons for ten Hag’s men to be optimistic. 

Despite losing Kluivert this summer, for example, they did manage to hold onto the club’s 19-year-old captain Matthijs De Ligt in the face of interest from much of the European elite. And alongside Hakim Ziyech, who impressed many at Russia 2018 and already has two 2018/19 Champions League goals to his name, they will also look to new signing Dusan Tadic, who has hit the ground running in Holland with seven goals already.

Their opponents on Wednesday are not entirely without some slight Champions League pedigree of their own. AEK’s run of six draws in the 2002-03 group stages against Real Madrid, Roma and Genk is an un-toppled record in European club tournaments. With the typical irony of knockout football, it was still not enough to qualify them for the next round.

One thing is certain: if Ajax are to get anywhere near the achievements of their figurative (and literal) 1995 forefathers, a win against AEK is vital. Erik ten Hag will hope his new-look side can play with the freedom of a club whose Champions League pedigree - and consequent expectation - is now a slightly more distant memory.

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