The defeat itself might have been almost 18 months ago but Hakim Ziyech, Chelsea’s recently-acquired multi-purpose attacking maestro, says that he has been told many times that a new career in the Premier League will be a chance to take a measure of “revenge” on Tottenham Hotspur.
Ziyech, 27, spoke for the first time as a Chelsea player on Thursday eight months after the £40 million fee was agreed with Ajax, pre-coronavirus pandemic, for him to come to Stamford Bridge. An injury in pre-season meant that he had to wait until Saturday for his debut as a substitute against Southampton and he came on again in the draw with Sevilla on Wednesday night.
As for Spurs, Ziyech was part of the thrilling Ajax side that were within a few seconds of reaching the 2019 Champions League final until Lucas Moura scored the goal that won the second leg and decided the tie on away goals. The young stars of that Ajax team have all moved on now and this is Ziyech’s chance – relatively late in his career – to spread his wings.
He described that defeat in Amsterdam in May last year as like the theft of “a child's dream”. “It is hard, it is painful,” he said. “It is crazy what happened at that time. It is hard to accept.” Last season was more difficult with the Dutch league season not officially finished and Ajax eliminated in the Champions League group stages and then early in the Europa League. The moment had passed for that Ajax generation to add another European Cup to the four the club already have, and it was snatched away by Spurs – Chelsea’s most bitter rivals.
“It helped me,” Ziyech said. “It helped me improve, to never give up, and of course people, even in Holland, they say: ‘Now you can take revenge on Tottenham’. But as a player you always want to win, it doesn't matter who it is. Even if it is Tottenham or whoever, you just want to win the game. At that point, Tottenham went to the final and it is what it is.”
It has taken Ziyech ten seasons as a professional to get his big move and he has gained a reputation for being an outspoken critic of some of the established names in Dutch football. At his first club, Heerenveen he clashed with manager Marco Van Basten, one of the Oranje’s greatest names. Later they would disagree again over Ziyech’s decision to declare for Morocco, the country of his parents, rather than the country of his birth.
Van Basten scoffed at Ziyech’s decision in 2016 only for the Atlas Lions to qualify for the 2018 World Cup while the Dutch failed to do so. At FC Twente, Ziyech was stripped of the captaincy in 2016 for critical comments about the club. He joined Ajax later that year where his career took off. Had his outspoken reputation affected his career?
“I don’t know - I said what I said at that time,” Ziyech said. “That was just the way I was looking at it and I am not afraid to have my opinion. I always speak from my heart. I don’t really care what people think about [me]. They can take it how they want to take it. In the end I always believe in myself and my own strengths. It didn’t really bother me what other clubs and people think.
“If you perform on the pitch, that’s why most of the clubs buy you. I also took my time. I didn’t want to rush myself to go to another club early at a young age. I took my time to improve and learn and grow as a person. I am 27 and now is the time to move on.”
On his public spat with Van Basten, Ziyech was blunt: “At the end of the day it’s my life - it’s not his. He said what he said, and I said what I said. I just moved on and I’m doing my thing and I don’t let people bother me. I always trust in my own strengths.”