“Now everything really is possible,” Peter Bosz said as Ajax reached the semi-finals of the Europa League with a 4-3 aggregate win over Schalke, despite having trailed 3-0 when the second period of extra time commenced in Thursday's second leg. It is the Amsterdam side’s first appearance in the final four of a European competition in 20 years, and real excitement is growing in Amsterdam as a bizarre season prepares for a thrilling climax.
Having watched his team grow in effectiveness in recent weeks, Bosz has the double in his sights, with a first Eredivisie title since 2013-14 even closer to his grasp than the Europa League. At the start of the month, a six-point gap separated them and the season’s perennial leaders Feyenoord, but a win over their rivals was followed by a newfound ruthlessness and, aided by a further slip up from the Rotterdammers, they cut the gap to one. A 2-0 first-leg win over Schalke, their best display this season, only intensified belief.
“If we win these last three [league] games, we’ll be champions,” Bosz said this week, but his assertion sounds backwards given they still trail Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s men.
“Feyenoord have two away games to play. They have yet to face two old teams of mine [Vitesse and Heracles].”
Although the KNVB Beker finalists, ninth-placed Heracles and relegation strugglers Excelsior present challenges for Feyenoord, they swept each of those aside in the previous league meetings, as has been their way this term. There is always a chance they will stumble, but it is Ajax who have the biggest test coming, lining up against reigning champions PSV on Sunday.
Bosz is right to be sure of his team though. They have been plagued by inefficiency for most of the season, but have shaken it off by scoring 20 goals in their last six games, and it should have been more. Feyenoord and the German side were particularly lucky to avoid humiliation in the Amsterdam Arena.
They have stepped up a level since the impressive 2-1 Klassieker win and it seems the benefits of his work are beginning to take shape towrads the end of his first year. The emergence of Andre Onana in goal, Matthias De Ligt at centre-back and Justin Kluivert, David Neres, Hakim Ziyech, Bertrand Traore and Kasper Dolberg in attack make this a much different team than the one that famously surrendered the title on the final day of last season under Frank de Boer. Add Lasse Schone’s return at central midfield and Daley Sinkgraven’s reinvention from attacking midfielder to left-back, and much has been skewed.
The attack has become better connected over the season. Ziyech has boosted a team that suffered from any inspiration or real strategy over the last two years and is the most creative player in the league. The Morocco international has been consistent and has improved his defensive work in big games - pressing from the front and tracking back.
For much of the season, they have been stinted by a lack of productivity from wingers Amin Younes and Bertrand Traore, but even they seem to have kicked into gear in recent weeks. The Chelsea loanee enjoyed his brightest patch while filling in up front for Dolberg, while Younes has perhaps been shaken up by the new challenge of Kluivert and Neres to add key goals.
The 17-year-old academy graduate’s trickery, pace and unpredictability make him a real threat, while Neres, 20, has scored three goals in three league starts since joining from Sao Paulo. At home in an interchangeable attack, the Brazilian has adapted well so far, but in both cases it is too early to set expectations.
The attack seems to be clicking, but the defence has had its say too, with De Ligt, another 17-year-old, Viergever and Sanchez contributing to goals in their current run.
Captain Davy Klaassen, their joint top scorer in all competitions alongside 19-year-old Dolberg with 19 goals, has been an integral force in midfield with his decisive displays and backed up by Schone, another reliable inspiration, the team is progressing smoothly.
Bosz is flying as a result of this progress, but he is wrong to ignore the flaws that were obvious in Thursday’s loss. Their defensive fragilities were completely exposed and the failure to react to the threat of Sead Kolasinac down the left showed a real weakness on the part of the coach and many of his players. But for the goalscoring Viergever’s valiant display, it would have put them out.
“We showed character,” Bosz said. “We seemed defeated but we were still able to pull this off. We have a real team that keeps fighting when needed, even if the chances of success seem almost gone. Now we go for the final.”
But the lack of defensive discipline from Kluivert and sloppiness from Veltman and Sanchez will be heavily punished if it arises again when Lyon turn up for the semi-final, regardless of their character.
PSV may have picked up a few tips too and when asked if they could copy Schalke’s strategy on Sunday, Bosz replied: “Let them do that. We have already shown the solution,” seemingly forgetting his side lost the game.
A key part of cutting Schalke out late on was thanks to the forced introduction of Kenny Tete after Veltman was sent off, but with the rarely used youngster on his way out, he will not be a regular fall-back for Bosz despite his strong defensive ability.
Bosz seems to be ignoring that PSV are a resurgent force themselves. They are still far off the level that saw them lift the last two league titles, but Twente, ADO Den Haag and Feyenoord are the only teams to take points from them in 2017. Rejuvenated by Marco van Ginkel, they also have Davy Propper and Gaston Pereiro doing well in attack and Andres Guardado has become more effective in recent weeks.
Travelling to Eindhoven just days after two gruelling hours of football in Gelsenkirchen will be tough on a youthful team, and just like Bosz is demanding a lot of his former teams to stop Feyenoord, he is at risk of getting carried away with his own.
This new-look side has advanced well to get back into contention for European and domestic silverware when expectations were low just a month ago and they still seem more likely to end 2016-17 empty handed. But as his work starts to take shape in his first season, their drought may not last much longer.