AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Ajax Amsterdam's Europa League elimination marked a steep decline from the dramatic highs of last season and the club are now facing a likely talent drain that could force another rebuilding job.
Ajax were knocked out in the Europa League's last 32 by Spain's Getafe on Thursday, bringing an ignominious halt to their hopes repeating last season's heroics when they bucked the odds and came within minutes of a Champions League final place.
That fairytale run, which started in the preliminary rounds and saw them eliminate the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus along the way, was ended by a last-gasp Tottenham Hotspur goal in the semi-finals.
Yet that remarkable story attracted a huge interest in their best players.
Frenkie de Jong was sold to Barcelona for 75 million euros ($82 million), and Matthijs de Ligt cost Juventus the same amount, with coach Erik ten Hag fighting hard to keep the remainder of his side together for the 2019-20 season.
This time, however, Ajax did not get past the Champions League group stage before tumbling out of the Europa League in the first knockout round.
The loss of the two youthful Dutch internationals took away some of their spark, but they also suffered some bad luck in the Champions League, notably at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea where they let a 4-1 lead slip to draw 4-4.
Captain Dusan Tadic suffered a severe dip in form and fellow veteran Daley Blind was diagnosed with heart problems, although he has since made a return.
They missed too the dramatic momentum of last season when the footballing world fell in love with Ajax again as they grabbed international headlines and sparked memories of a glorious past and their four European Cup wins.
This season's failure, however, means there are likely to be a flood of departures, as the cream of a talented squad are picked up by bigger clubs. Midfielder Hakim Ziyech's move to Chelsea next season is already confirmed.
"It is difficult to keep the squad intact because Ajax players are always an attractive proposition,” said sports director Marc Overmars last month.
Goalkeeper Andre Onana, defender Nicolas Tagliafico, midfielders Donny van de Beek and Joel Veltman and the Brazil international winger David Neres are expected to leave while Ten Hag, too, has been linked with several jobs, notably at Bayern Munich.
The likelihood of Ajax having to rebuild next season is a near certainty at a time when they want to change their image as a 'selling club'.
To do so, however, they need to make more money from competitions rather than player sales.
"We are at a crossroads and are asking ourselves the question: 'What does Ajax stand for?'” general manager Edwin van Sar said in a recent interview.
"From a football perspective we stand for creativity, dominance, attractive attacking play. But budget wise we are struggling if we are not competing in the Champions League, and we are having to sell,” he added.
(Writing by Mark Gleeson; Editing by Toby Davis)