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Will Ajax be the Champions League’s surprise package again this season?

European football fans will fondly remember Ajax’s remarkable run to the Champions League semi-finals in the 2018-19 season. The Amsterdam-based side entered the continent’s premier club competition in the third qualifying round and defied all the UEFA Champions League betting odds to make it to the final four — where Tottenham Hotspur came from three goals down to progress to the final ahead of the Dutch outfit on away goals thanks to a stunning Lucas Moura hat-trick in the second half of the second leg.

It certainly would have been a bitter pill to swallow for Ajax. They looked nailed on for a place in the final at the Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid, where they would have gotten the opportunity to get their hands on the prestigious European trophy an impressive fourth time. Nonetheless, it was an admirable run from Erik ten Hag’s men as they exceeded all expectations to that point after they sent Real Madrid and Juventus packing in the earlier knockout rounds.

However, as the Ajax players dropped to the hallowed turf of the Johan Cruyff Arena when the final whistle echoed around the stands, surely wondering how they had blown such a golden opportunity, and Spurs wheeled off in celebration, the home fans would have known that their star players were going to be raided by Europe’s elite during the upcoming summer transfer window.

And so, it happened. Midfield maestro Frenkie de Jong jetted off to Barcelona for a huge £65 million fee, while centre-back Matthijs de Ligt was scooped up by Juventus for slightly more, as The Old Lady paid £67.5m for the then 19-year-old Dutch defender’s services.

Other key players from that semi-final-reaching squad have departed the Netherlands’ capital since, including Hakim Ziyech and Donny van de Beek, who both opted for a move to the Premier League — joining Chelsea and Manchester United, respectively.

Yet, ten Haag and his side have battled on and have been one of the standout performers in the tournament as we head into the first knockout round. In a difficult group with Borussia Dortmund, Sporting Lisbon and Beşiktaş, de Godenzonen progressed to the round of 16 with victories in all six of their games — scoring 20 goals and conceding just five.

The form of Sébastien Haller has perhaps been one of the most crucial aspects for Ajax’s success. Unable to find his feet at West Ham United, the striker has scored a jaw-dropping 10 goals already in the competition, including four strikes in the 5-1 away win over Sporting, and is well on track to compete with Robert Lewandowski, who is currently on nine, for the lucrative Golden Boot.

Having drawn Benfica in the first knockout round, Ajax have every chance of being in the pot for the quarter-finals, and after stunning Madrid and Juve en route to the semis a couple of years ago, nobody will want to be paired with ten Hag’s men in the last eight should they get past the Portuguese outfit.

With players like Haller, Dušan Tadić, Antony, Ryan Gravenberch, Steven Berghuis and Daley Blind, there is a good mix of youth and experience in the squad — albeit still a bit too much on the youthful side, perhaps. But the same could be said about the class of 2018-19.

This side definitely has the ability to cause upsets and be this year’s surprise package, if it’s even fair to call them that now they have topped Group E with a 100% strike rate. However, Europe’s big guns are already waiting in the flanks to pry away Ajax’s next crop of young talent, and with ten Haag constantly linked with a move away from Amsterdam, they will certainly not want to pass on this opportunity again.