Can Ajax and Lyon be Champions League surprises in the New Year?
Background photo: Jose Carlos Ortiz Aparicio, CC By 1.0
At the beginning of the UEFA Champions League group stages, little was expected from AFC Ajax and Olympique Lyonnais. Put in relatively difficult groups containing certain European heavyweights, everyone dismissed them, expecting the pair to be back in the Europe League come December.
Perceived as the whipping boys for Manchester City and Bayern Munich, a young, inexperienced Ajax side along with Lyon, troubled by Nabil Fekir’s behind-the-scenes saga, produced dark clouds around their qualification hopes.
However, the talented individuals in their team took this as a challenge rather than something to fear. Lyon, Ajax rallied back to combat everything thrown at them, resulting in them being in a rare group of undefeated teams in the Champions League so far.
What many didn’t know about Ajax was they had a very well-balanced squad heading into the group stages. They kicked off proceedings with an impressive 3-0 victory over AEK Athens, before ending Bayern Munich’s 12-game winning streak at home in Europe with a terrific 1-1 draw. This game gave rise to young starlets Hakim Ziyech and Frenkie De Jong, while Noussair Mazraoui also stole the spotlight with a terrific equaliser.
This result gave Erik ten Hag’s men all the confidence needed to gain positive results against Benfica and Ajax to seal a place into the knockout rounds. Olympique Lyonnais, on the other hand, faced Pep Guardiola’s flying Manchester City and Champions League regulars Shakhtar Donetsk. A grim beginning loomed for them at the impenetrable Etihad Stadium against a ruthless Manchester City side.
Les Gones, had other ideas. Lyon started with blistering pace and momentum right from the get-go, something City did not expect. Two quick-fire from Maxwell Cornet and Nabil Fekir, who if things hadn’t gone wrong would’ve played for City’s title rivals Liverpool, shocked the blue side of Manchester. City tried mounting a comeback in the second half, but the rigid Lyon stood firm to end City’s dominance at home.
Since the win, Lyon’s been frustrated with persistent draws. Hoffenheim stole points from them in the dying minutes on two occasions, before which they were held by Shakhtar. Cornet gave another fantastic performance in scoring a brace against City in the thrilling 2-2 draw in France. However, with other games going their favour, Lyon now sit steadily in second place.
Ajax’s already sealed their qualification. They’re now looking to pick up a famous victory against Bayern Munich on Wednesday to win Group E. The last time they even made it out of the group stages was almost 12 years ago. The stability and experience of Daley Blind, Dusan Tadic & Klaas Jan Huntelaar mixed with the exuberance of Ziyech, De Jong and David Neres is working wonders for them.
If they could manage to top the group(a wayward task itself), Ajax can look way forward in the Champions League knockout rounds. Many might underestimate their threat, yet the Dutch giants have come alive this time. They can upset any side with their unpredictability. Ajax plays a very clever yet attractive style of football. They’ve found the defensive where-with-all to back them up when found in a difficult position, proved in having only conceded two goals so far.
If teams keep on undermining them, they’ll tear through them like a knife through butter. Erik ten Heg is doing a fantastic job in keeping his players grounded mentally, yet letting them express themselves on the field. He’s immersed a clinical winning mentality into the squad which resembles the old Ajax.
For Lyon, knockout rounds qualification isn’t sealed just yet. They face a tough trip away to Ukraine, although knowing their own ability to pop up with crucial points, they should at least get one point is enough to take them into the last sixteen. Les Gones need to be prepared for the worst, with heavyweights like Juventus or Barcelona being stern possibilities in the next round.
However, Lyon has shown no fear, unlike previous seasons. They have the attacking flair to match any European Heavyweight and courageously taking games to their opponents. Lyon’s scored 10 goals in the group stages so far, more than Liverpool, Juventus and Manchester United.
Fekir, Depay and Cornet are working wonders in attack with irresistible swagger and lethal chemistry, while Moussa Dembele and breakthrough star Ndombele add further firepower. While things will get tricky in the knockouts stages for both Ajax and Lyon, their impressive showings against Bayern and City respectively, among the best in Europe, proves they can hang and even slay European giants.
European expectations are already exceeded for these rising up-and-comers. Now, they can play without any pressure or mounting tensions from the fans. If their performances so far have proved anything, they are the competitions’ secret weapons going forward and cause a stir for anyone who dares perceive them as weak.