This Ajax team are getting a lot of attention. And so they should.
The surprise package in this season’s Champions League, they have captured the imagination with a series of high-energy displays, drawing the curtain on Real Madrid‘s long stay on football’s Iron Throne along the way.
On Tuesday night, they face Juventus in Turin with a realistic shot at reaching the semi-final. David Neres’ equaliser at the Johan Cruyff Arena means Erik ten Hag’s men will advance with a 1-0 win in Italy.
Ajax’s team is rich with writer-friendly narratives. They have Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong, the golden boys of Amsterdam, through their spine while there has been plenty of interest in Dušan Tadić’s regeneration.
Neres, too, has popped up with important goals this season, not least his strike to help crush Real at the Bernabéu.
But Ajax would be nowhere without the craft and guile of the man who scored the opener on that enthralling night in the Spanish capital: Hakim Ziyech.
The Moroccan, currently enjoying the most productive season of his career, has been the livewire of this stirring European adventure. A player born for the viral video era, he’s attracted interest from a host of clubs including Real Madrid, Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton, Leicester City and Roma.
And, of course, Ajax’s adventure began back in July. As the titans of European football participated in the International Champions Cup, Ajax were slugging away in the second qualifying round of the Champions League, with Ziyech’s opener against Sturm Graz setting the four-time European champions on their way.
The 26-year-old helped Ajax see off Standard Liège before scoring against Dynamo Kyiv to reach the group stage. His first crack at the Champions League proper, he hasn’t passed up the opportunity to showcase his delightful skill-set on the biggest stage.
He produced one of the assists of the season to help take a point off Benfica. Turning on the halfway line, he looked up to spot Tadić’s run in between the two centre-halves. The No.22 proceeded to drop an inch-perfect pass into the Serbian’s path for the equaliser.
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Ziyech can be mercurial. That night against Benfica, he misplaced 11 passes and failed to complete three of his four take-ons.
But he can be magical, possessing a penchant for the spectacular that can turn a game in an instant. Benfica had no real reason to feel threatened before Tadić’s goal. Ajax had the ball on the halfway line but Ziyech still managed to create a gilt-edged chance within two seconds of receiving de Ligt’s pass.
He’s changed several games this season. With 19 goals and 19 assists, the former FC Twente trickster been directly involved in 27 per cent of Ajax’s 140 goals, including finding the net both home and away against Real Madrid.
In the Champions League, only Neymar and Raheem Sterling have completed more take-ons than his 26. Incredibly trigger-happy, he’s also struck the most shots, both on and off target, and from outside the box. The latter strategy often works; he’s scored eight goals from outside the area in the Eredivisie this season, more than any other player.
Ziyech is remarkably adept at creating chances for himself. Blessed with beautiful technique and a low centre of gravity, he has mastered the Riyad Mahrez fake, shaping to shoot before dragging the ball back onto his other foot and letting rip. It doesn’t always come off. He has watched 64 shots sail off target this season but he always comes back for more.
In a way, he is fearless. Ziyech is unmoved by the idea of losing the ball or missing a shot. His philosophy is simple; keep shooting and one will eventually fly in. Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Mohamed Salah, the three closest to his shot tally in the Champions League, appear to follow the same mantra.
But Ziyech is far more than pretty passes and a busy left foot. Like Neres and Tadić, he works hard in attack; he has won possession a total 57 times for Ajax in the Champions League this season, 13 of which were in the attacking third, more than any other player.
Ziyech and his teammates have risen brilliantly to the biggest challenges this season. Unlucky not to beat Bayern Munich in the Allianz Arena, they pulled off one of the most stunning results in recent years with that 4-1 win over Real. On Tuesday, they enter the lion’s den once more.
Having silenced Munich and Madrid, they’re hoping to do the same in Turin against a side who, like them, are looking to end a 20-plus year wait for European glory.
Of course, if things had panned out differently, Ziyech would be playing in Italy right now. However, while last summer’s move to Roma failed to materialise, one suspects he won’t have to wait long for overtures from potential employers this time around.