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Ajax v Liverpool: The next generation of talent from football’s greatest academy set to make an impact in the Champions League
Two years on from their remarkable semi-final run, Ajax’s latest academy graduates face off against Premier League champions Liverpool exclusively live on BT Sport – the home of European football.
It’s the never-ending production line of talent, football’s great academy and moulder of some of the finest players to grace the beautiful game.
Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, the De Boer brothers and Frank Rijkaard in the 1970s and 80s. Dennis Bergkamp, Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, Edwin van der Sar and Clarence Seedorf in the 90s. Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart, Toby Alderweireld and Christian Eriksen in the 2000s and 2010s. They all started at Ajax.
Predictably the most recent generation were cherry-picked by Europe’s top sides. After playing pivotal roles in Ajax’s run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2018/19, Frenkie de Jong joined Barcelona and Matthijs de Ligt went to Juventus.
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Donny van de Beek and Hakim Ziyech spent another season in Amsterdam but completed moves to Manchester United and Chelsea respectively this summer. Sergino Dest, at just 19, followed De Jong to Barcelona in the same window.
Yet, as always with Ajax, one generation makes way for the next and the crop of 2020/21 are set to make a name for themselves on the European stage once again, beginning with the visit of 2019 Champions League winner and Premier League champions Liverpool.
The matchday one fixture is live on BT Sport 2 HD from 7pm on Wednesday 21 October, as club football's greatest competition takes centre stage once again.
Here BTSport.com assess the new Ajax youngsters ready to shine and outline a few names you might hear a little more about in the coming months.
Joined: Aged 8
Despite his tender years, Ryan Gravenberch already looks a star in the making. The midfielder became Ajax’s youngest-ever Eredivisie player in September 2018 at just 16 years and 130 days old, breaking the record held by four-time Champions League winner Clarence Seedorf.
Started in Amsterdam
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The following season Gravenberch established himself in the first team, before Covid-19 cut short what promised to be a breakthrough campaign. This season he has featured regularly in Erik ten Hag’s three-man midfield and looks a ready-made replacement for De Jong.
Gravenberch is a silky-smooth player. Defensively he is disciplined positionally and stays deep to make interceptions. On the ball he is quick and agile enough to dribble past opponents and comfortable passing to his front three.
At 6ft 2ins and still with room to fill out, he should develop into a dominant presence in midfield. It might not be for Ajax though, with Gravenberch opting to employ Mino Raiola as his advisor suggesting it won’t be long before the super-agent brokers a transfer away.
Joined: From Fortuna Sittard in 2018
The player Ajax hope will replace Matthijs de Light, at 6ft 3ins and with a crop of fair hair, Perr Schuurs definitely looks the part.
They recruited the defender from Fortuna Sittard in January 2018, at the time a second-division Dutch side, where he’d been named captain at just 17 years old. He was loaned back to Fortuna for the remainder of the season and subsequently led his side to promotion to the Eredivisie.
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The Dutch champions are joined by Premier League holders Liverpool, last season's surprise package Atalanta and Danish side Midtjylland.
Schuurs is exactly what you expect from the archetypal Ajax defender. The 20-year-old is a sublime passer out from the back and reads the game exceptionally well to snuff out danger. He regularly starts attacks from deep with pinpoint balls to more advanced team-mates.
His only previous taste of Champions League football came as a substitute after Ajax went down to nine men in the chaotic 4-4 draw with Chelsea. Ten Hag will hope to release Schuurs into calmer waters this campaign.
They rate him on the international stage too. He was called up to the senior Netherlands team in September, though he has yet to earn his first international cap.
Joined: From Sao Paolo this summer
Ajax’s big summer arrival was the £14million purchase of Antony from Brazilian side Sao Paolo where he’d impressed on the right side of attack.
Typical of a Brazilian forward, Antony is a box of tricks and beats his defender with an array of flicks and stepovers. But there’s substance beneath the style – he recorded six assists and four goals for Sao Paolo.
And it’s been a dream start to life in the Dutch capital for Antony. The 20-year-old scored the only goal of the game on his debut against Sparta Rotterdam before netting the winner against Vitesse Arnheim on his third appearance. He also netted Ajax's fifth in the 5-1 win over Heerenveen at the weekend.
With his compatriot David Neres still easing himself back in after last season’s serious knee injury, Antony could play a key role for Ten Hag’s men in his maiden campaign.
Position: Attacking midfield
Joined: Aged 13
With 16 goals in 39 appearances for Jong Ajax, Jurgen Ekkelenkamp was a star for the second team before breaking into Ten Hag’s first-team squad.
Ekkelenkamp is a skilful, creative attacking midfielder who makes and takes goalscoring opportunities. Ajax’s academy preaches the TIPS model – Technique, Insight, Personality and Speed – and he has all four in abundance.
The best of the best
Notable recent Ajax academy products:
Donny van de Beek
Frenkie de Jong
Matthijs de Ligt
One of last season’s goals saw the then-teenager control a ball drilled into him perfectly, feint two defenders and thrash home into the roof of the net.
Another saw him with his back to goal, flicking the ball around his marker and clipping the ball past the goalkeeper.
“He’s a typical product of the academy,” Ten Hag said of the 20-year-old. “A technical and intelligent player. And he plays with courage, courage and courage.”
Used mostly as a substitute so far this season, Ekkelenkamp may not start against Liverpool on Wednesday. But if Ten Hag’s character assessment is anything to go by, he’ll have no fear should he enter the fray.
Joined: Ajax Cape Town from Burkinabe side Rahimo in 2017
After making his first start of the season in the 5-1 win over Heerenveen, Lassina Traore is firmly in line to become Ajax’s next great No 9.
Zakaria Labyad had started Ajax's first four Eredivisie clashes, but is a more natural attacking midfielder with just three goals in 17 league appearances. Antony and Neres feature out wide, the Dusan Tadic false nine experiment is over and Klaas Jan-Huntelaar – by Traore’s own judgement – is getting on a bit at 37 years old.
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“He asked me if I had a PlayStation, I told him I’d sold him on FIFA because he was too old,” Traore joked of his first meeting with Huntelaar. “He said that when he’s the Ajax coach he will send me back to Burkina Faso.”
But what he lacks in respect for his elders, Traore makes up for in pace, movement and finishing. The Burkinabé has netted 21 times in 31 Jong Ajax appearances and once in five for the first team.
This campaign, the 20-year-old has featured off the bench in all four Eredivisie matches so far and it appears only a matter of time before he displaces Labyad.
Born in Burkina Faso, Traore was snapped up by Ajax Cape Town in 2017 before making the move to Amsterdam in 2019. He’s already made an impact with his country too with eight caps and three goals for the West African nation.
Joined: From Danish side Nordsjaelland this summer
Another addition this summer, Ajax signed Ghanaian midfielder Mohammed Kudus for around £7m from Nordsjaelland to help fill the void left by Van de Beek’s departure.
Kudus featured in a variety of positions for the Danish side last season – as a false nine, a standard central midfielder and in the No 10 role.
What Ajax do know is that he is a quick, athletic player with a dangerous burst of acceleration to get past defenders. The twice-capped Ghana international, a product of the famed Right To Dream Academy in his homeland, has a natural flair and confidence on the ball with the technical ability to match.
He’s not afraid of expressing himself on the pitch, with one sublime assist for Nordsjaelland coming via a nonchalant dink over a defender from a standing start.
Kudus has started as a right-sided midfielder in two of Ajax’s matches so far, but it’s unclear where his long-term future lies for Ten Hag’s side. A goal in the 5-1 thrashing against Heerenveen means he'll be full of confidence and ready for the visit of Liverpool.
Joined: Aged 12 from Feyenoord
Alongside Daley Blind, Schuurs started the first three Eredivisie fixtures in what appeared Ten Hag’s first-choice centre-back partnership.
But Schuurs was substituted off against Vitesse and in his place came Jurrien Timber. The 19-year-old then replaced Schuurs in the starting line-up in the defeat to Groningen.
As is customary with Ajax centre-backs, Timber is a ball-playing defender who made his name for the second team last season. But Timber is also an aggressive defender who is strong in the tackle against opposition forwards.
Of Aruban and Curacao descent, he joined Ajax with his twin brother Quinten who plays further forward in midfield.
One Eredivisie start may appear scant preparation to face Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane but Ajax have never been afraid to throw their youngsters in at the deep end.