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Remembering bold Ajax run that never strayed from its philosophy

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Sometimes the football gods show us something special, something that gives us hope even in the face of unimaginable agony. Not necessarily the hope we wanted, but the hope we needed. Hope for the future that somehow touches us even though we are not directly connected.

As we watched a bold young Ajax side make a stunning run through the Champions League, there was a swagger about them that allowed neutral fans to connect with a hidden passion. This team would win, they would do it their way, and they would do it against the best in the world. Every fan likes to watch the giants fall, if done with confidence and gall and poise.

A squad that features a 19-year-old captain, a 23-year-old goalkeeper, a 22-year-old attacking wizard, and a 21-year-old midfield anchor was lighting up the best teams in the world on the biggest stage at the most famous grounds on the planet, and through it all they would not be moved from their creed.

Ultimately, it cost them everything as Spurs galavanted to one of the most stunning comebacks Europe has ever seen in its most prestigious club competition. As Jose Mourinho – who himself completed the feat with Porto in 2004 and again with Inter in 2010 – said after the match, “Sometimes you even need to go against your philosophy to win a football match…but they stuck with their philosophy, they played the game in the second half like they were playing Vitesse in the Dutch league. They played like it was a group phase game, or one more game in their own league.”

(Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

What Mourinho doesn’t realize is, that was exactly what made Ajax so special. Their best was better than anyone else’s best this year, with maybe only Liverpool coming close. They beat Real Madrid on the road, Juventus on the road, and Tottenham on the road by sticking with their philosophy, and it added to their mystique. These were kids who wouldn’t be bullied by the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric, Robert Lewandowski, or any of the other stars they matched up against. They would win their own swashbuckling way, or they’d die trying. They stared giants in the face, and slayed one after another, until like Boromir they took one too many arrows to the chest. But they would not be moved.

As the second half of Wednesday’s match continued and the visitors at Johan Cruyff Arena grew in confidence, Ajax could have bunkered in and looked to defend knowing one more Spurs goal would do them in. Instead, they played as they have all season, attacking at every opportunity. Despite Spurs pouring forward in relentless and desperate fashion, the hosts had five shots in the final 20 minutes – including three in the final 10 minutes – while defending the lead. Hakim Ziyech missed a 62nd minute effort that came agonizingly close to killing off the game – a goal which would have changed the narrative completely – and also had a 78th minute chance go just wide.

This is who they are, and manager Erik ten Hag would not stray from that mentality, even as Spurs scored one, then two, then three to complete the comeback. He had captured lightning in a bottle with some of the best young talent in Europe all together on the field, and so far no one had been able to out-football them. As Ziyech, Frenkie de Jong, Donny van de Beek, David Neres, and Matthijs de Ligt carved up some of the best players in the world with a stunning attacking flow, it was clear that they were tactically superior to their opponents, who were seemingly blindsided that their talent could be matched in such a way.

What this young team gave fans around the world is hope – hope that they too could be a part of something special someday, that lightning in a bottle is not just for Leicester City and its miracle run from seemingly nowhere. No, this type of hope is different than that. A true investment in young talent pays off every so often, and if the stars align just right, anyone can produce what Ajax has gifted the world. This was a calculated process, a system that created a beautiful product that wasn’t just a season of overachievement based on hard work and good management, but instead a base of truly world-class talent at a young age. A process that not only brought Ajax seconds from the Champions League final, but one that will pay off this summer in what surely will culminate in a massive financial windfall for the club.

That is what makes this end to the run so heartbreaking – the Ajax squad will surely be picked apart this summer, and while Edwin van der Sar will do his best to take a balanced approach to the coming transfer window, it will be difficult for the Dutch side to fend off the European vultures. But that is part of the team’s identity – as they progressed through bigger and bigger challenges, and each player’s transfer value grew, they knew the end was near. This was their one and only shot together. They had nothing to lose and everything to gain each time they stepped foot on the pitch, and it showed.

Ajax gave fans around the world hope that with the right mentality, with the right process, a club can stick to its guns and not only recall memories of its great history, but create new moments in time, ones that will shock the world. They may have fallen just short of true glory, but this run should be remembered because it was a story of success through process, one that proves anyone belongs in this great tournament if they earn it.

Petr Cech earns win with 2 penalty saves in hockey debut

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Former Chelsea and Arsenal goalkeeper joined English fourth-division hockey team Guildford Phoenix four days ago and made his debut on Sunday.

He did not disappoint.

The 37-year-old saved two penalties in the shootout, earning Man of the Match honors.

Cech is reportedly a fan of the Guilford Flames, the first-division side who use the Phoenix as their developmental side. He was signed to be the team’s third-choice goalkeeper, just a chance for him to get in on the action before his body gives way for good, but he was given a chance to play right away. He wore number 39, a nod to famous Czech goaltender Dominik Hasek. His custom helmet was adorned with Arsenal and Chelsea colors. Regulation finished level at 2-2 before Cech’s shootout heroics.

“I wanted to win, that was the main thing, and I’m glad we did,” Cech said after the match. “I was surprised that I wasn’t more nervous. I didn’t know what to expect so it was nice how quickly my body switched into matchday mode.”

Giroud upset with reserve role at Chelsea

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Olivier Giroud does not look back on his transfer to Chelsea and wish he had done things differently, but that doesn’t mean things are all sunshine and roses for the 33-year-old.

Giroud, who moved to Chelsea from Arsenal in the winter of 2018 after six years with the Gunners, has played just 43 times in the Premier League, averaging just 35 minutes per appearance. That has him frustrated, hoping to prove his loyalty to the club and work harder than the other options up front.

“I had competitors in attack – [Alvaro] Morata, [Gonzalo] Higuain, who ended up leaving,” Giroud said. “I won at the end: I played the final of the FA Cup in 2018 and the [Europa League] final in 2019. Once again, I’m starting the year in a difficult situation. But as my brother says, I have always built myself in the face of adversity.”

Giroud is trying to be smart about how he approaches the competition for time with the likes of Tammy Abraham and Michy Batshuayi, but he says it is emotionally taxing.

“You do not have to be fatalistic in certain situations,” Giroud says about keeping a level head. “I have always been respectful and humble. Even if I do not agree with the coach, I do not criticize him. But in myself, I cannot accept it because I know what I’m worth on a pitch.”

The French international has made just three league appearances this season, mostly thanks to Abraham’s scalding form. Abraham, still just 22 years old, has snatched his opportunity for first-team minutes with eight goals in eight games to start the campaign. That has left Giroud on the sidelines for each of the last five league games, missing out on a spot in the matchday squad altogether for the last three.

Despite his struggles at the club level, Giroud has maintained his place in the French national team, missing just five matches of France’s last 64 games, including 37 of the last 39.

James says he was not knocked unconscious in Wales draw

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Head injury awareness again rose to the forefront in the 1-1 draw between Wales and Croatia in Cardiff when Daniel James went down after colliding with a pair of opponents.

The Manchester United winger looked to almost sure have been knocked unconscious when Domagoj Vida’s knee appeared to tap the back of his head while challenging for a ball in the air. Vida went toppling over the back of teammate Borna Barisic who ducked out of the way, but it was James who many were concerned for as he lay motionless on his back with his eyes closed.

Yet James was allowed to come back onto the field and completed the full 90 minutes, sparking criticism from injury advocates and fans who were concerned for James’ safety on the field, at potential risk for even more serious consequences should he indeed have suffered a concussion.

After the game however, despite what fans saw as James lie on the turf, the 21-year-old insisted he was not knocked unconscious. “I’m fine,” James claimed after the match, speaking to Sky Sports. “I think he just caught me in the head but I didn’t get knocked out fortunately.”

Wales boss Ryan Giggs backed up the decision as well, calling James’ motionless display “a bit of acting.”

“The medical staff went over, he was compos mentis and we did all the checks at half-time and he was fine,” Giggs said, referring to the latin phrase for “of sound mind.”

If James was indeed faking unconsciousness, it’s natural to wonder if he should face a fine from UEFA for looking to con referees, and in the process possibly confusing the independent neurologists on site assigned to assess head injuries.

ESPN broadcaster Taylor Twellman, who has been outspoken over the past few years advocating for head injury awareness after his career was cut short by concussions, took to Twitter to criticize Wales for allowing James back into the game. Twellman, who was on the ESPN call of the broadcast with Ian Darke, said more needs to be done to prevent players from being able to force their way back onto the field, lest someone be killed by second impact syndrome.

Former Hull City player Ryan Mason, who was forced to retire after a serious skull fracture saw him fighting for his life, was also seriously concerned about the incident.

Interestingly enough, later in the match just seconds after the second half restart, young Wales midfielder Ethan Ampadu was whalloped from behind by Croatia’s Bruno Petkovic in a wild and reckless aerial challenge. Petkovic’s elbow went clattering into the back of Ampadu’s head, and the was left writhing on the ground holding his head. The Chelsea youngster was taken off the field and immediately replaced by Joe Morrell, while Petkovic was lucky to escape with just a yellow card.

Kane reflects on Tottenham, England struggles

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Harry Kane keeps finding the back of the net, but his teams keep losing.

The 26-year-old striker has bagged five Premier League goals in eight games for Spurs thus far, plus another seven goals for England in five Euro 2020 qualifiers this cycle. Yet Tottenham sits ninth in the table after three losses already this season, while England slumped to its first Euro defeat last time out, putting its seeding at the Euro finals next summer in jeopardy.

Kane is hoping to be a leader through the tough times for both club and country, wearing the armband for both as it currently stands.

“I think you need to lead by example,” Kane said ahead of England’s visit to Bulgaria on Monday. “Not getting too down when you lose a game, not getting too high when you win games. It is a long, old season for club and country ahead – a lot of games to be played so there are going to be tough periods.”

Kane has taken over the England captaincy on a permanent basis, and is filling in for the injured Hugo Lloris at Tottenham. “I am still the same person,” he said. “I still try and lead by example on and off the pitch and I will continue to do that. I have been in high pressure situations before in my career, whether that is going through goal droughts, playing in high-pressure games or not playing well as a team. It is something I will take in my stride and improve on.”

Leading by example includes finding the back of the net, while also supporting teammates both on and off the pitch. He knows even if he’s in good personal form on the stat sheet, there’s always ways to improve and help the squads through tough times.

“I am scoring goals but can I get more assists, create more chances? So yeah, I always look at little things I can get better at. Yes, the England form has been good but as ever, it can be better. We will see if I can continue scoring. It has been a good campaign but important I do not stop now.”