Ajax will not lie down as they continue their unlikely venture into the latter stages of the Champions League. Their 2-1 defeat to Real Madrid at the Johan Cruyff Arena should have been the end of them back in February, but they responded in some style by going to the Bernabeu and scoring four goals.
When they trailed 1-0 to Juventus at half time in their quarter-final first leg, you got the sense yet again that the dream had run its course, but as they prepare for another decisive second leg, they find themselves in with a real chance of reaching the semi-finals with the scored tied at 1-1.
In both instances, 22-year-old Brazilian star David Neres was due more than a little credit. While the win in Madrid was for all intents and purposes the Dusan Tadic show, it was Neres who struck to give them an aggregate lead, just as it was Neres who delivered spectacularly to square things up with Juve.
Playing in an Ajax side full to the brim with talent that will go for astronomical fees in the near future (or already have, in the case of Frenkie de Jong), Neres almost gets lost in the pack, but time and again he is showing up when it counts.
While the likes of De Jong, De Ligt and Tagliafico may hog the credit, however, it's not as if Neres hasn't seen a share of the spoils. His displays have earned him links with Liverpool, PSG and Dortmund, and it's easy to see why.
The Stats Don't Lie
Statistically, Neres has been an absolute revelation for Ajax since his first-team debut back in February 2017. In his 93 appearances, he's scored 29 goals and assisted a further 32, putting him up there with just about any other Eredivisie player in that time.
Some will make the case that it's a weaker league than he would be playing in at Liverpool or elsewhere, but you only have to draw comparisons to some former Ajax stars to quickly dispel the myth that it doesn't translate.
Christian Eriksen, who has since gone on to become one of the world's best playmakers, managed 33 goals and 65 assists in 163 appearances - putting his average per game around the same as Neres'. Playing as a winger is clearly a different game to attacking midfield, but the Eriksen index is nonetheless a decent barometer for how influential the 22-year-old has been in his two years in Holland.
Consistency Is Key
His statistics are impressive, but furthermore, it's worth noting just how consistent Neres has been over the course of the season so far. While others of his ilk; enigmatic, skilful wingers capable of changing games; have a tendency to drift in and out of the season, condensing their influence into purple patches, Neres has seldom wavered.
His goals and assists have largely been spread out evenly. He has either scored or assisted in 16 separate Eredivisie games this season, having started just 18 and appeared as a substitute in a further ten.
He has his hot streaks - four goals and two assists in his last four appearances will attest to that - but no matter how the team is playing, you can usually rely on Neres to come up with something to create a chance or two. While his pace and skill are undeniably huge assets that put him up there with the best in those categories, it's his consistency and dependability that set him apart from his peers.
On the Up
Neres is now entering his third year at Ajax since signing from Sao Paolo, and ever since his debut back in 2017, he has steadily improved. Four more goals this season will see him surpass his 2017/18 total of 15 in all competitions, while he has already registered one more assist than his previous tally of 14.
With Ajax scoring for fun in the Eredivisie; 100 goals, 19 of which either scored or assisted by Neres, putting them on top of the table on goal difference; it would come as something of a surprise if he didn't better himself.
🇧🇷 • David Neres in the last two weeks:— AjaxTimes (@ajaxtimes) April 11, 2019
• Makes debut for Brazil, turns the game around with an assist.
• Scores and decides the Eredivisie game of the season vs PSV.
• Scores equalizer in the Champions League quarter-final vs Juventus.
The samba is strong with this one. pic.twitter.com/KgpVoyAsdn
Perhaps the clearest indicator of his development, however, is the standard of opposition he has shown it against over the last 12 months. Though it's been clear from day one he has it in him to tear up Dutch football, this season saw his introduction on the European stage, and he hasn't half made an impression.
Having come up against Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Juventus so far in Ajax's current Champions League run, Neres has made five appearances against 'elite' European sides, scoring twice and assisting once. While those aren't quite groundbreaking numbers, he has demonstrated in that small sample of games that he can produce against the very best in the world, even at this early point in his career.
Piece all that together, and you have a player with the ability to make a mockery of a mean Juventus defence, and the bottle for the big occasions. He's two-footed, versatile, scores goals, gets assists, and does it both against weaker domestic opposition and on the big stage. At 22, he is already a full international with Brazil, and is only going to get better with age.
Any big club looking to bolster their attack for next season; be it Real Madrid, Liverpool or anyone in between; would be absolutely mad not to look at Ajax's latest attacking sensation. Currently valued at around £30m but performing well above that, whoever moves first will be getting a bargain compared to what he's going to be worth in a few years.