Dusan Tadic can at least smile now when he tells the story of Ajax’s Champions League semi-final defeat by Tottenham Hotspur. Even so, it is a tale he starts with the grimace of a man who lost something precious and knows he is unlikely to find it again as a player.
Four months have passed since that agonising night in Amsterdam and although the pain lingers, it is a mild throb. Tadic has moved on and so, too, have Ajax as they prepare for the start of a new Champions League group stage campaign against Lille tonight.
Tadic reveals he tried to watch the final between Liverpool and Tottenham, but the memories were still too vivid. A bitterness consumed him. The Serbian could not put himself through it all again. The whats, ifs and maybes had been spinning around in his head for weeks after a defeat in a semi-final Ajax had led 3-0, at half-time, in the second leg.
Rather than focus on what Ajax had failed to do, Tadic realised he was making a mistake. They should appreciate what they had achieved. League and cup winners in Holland, they were the first Ajax side to reach the semi-finals of the Champions League for almost a quarter of a century, and they did it in style.
“The memories still haunt me,” said Tadic, sitting in a canteen at Ajax’s sprawling Toekomst complex, as the last of the various youth team players, boys and girls, drift out after lunch.
“I tried to watch the final, but switched it off. It was such a terrible game, probably one of the worst Champions League finals … most people at Ajax, they did not even bother to watch. They could not bear it. All I thought was that we would have played better [than Spurs]. We would have given Liverpool a tough game. That didn’t help me heal, thinking it should have been us.
“It was the most difficult game of my career. It took a long time to recover. For weeks, I was thinking ‘how did that happen’? Why did that happen? We had everything in our hands. We won the first game 1-0, we are 2-0 up at half-time and we are almost in the final.
“We think, ‘OK, be sensible, carry on playing’ … you have to give a lot of credit to Tottenham, they kept coming, they showed their quality and, in that second half, Lucas Moura, everything went right for him … we had chances to score another goal …
“I’ve watched the third goal a few times. So strange, so many small things went in their favour. The long ball, the bounce, a slip by Lisandro Magallan, even then, the shot, it is going to go straight, but the ball takes a little deflection off [Matthijs] De Ligt and that takes it into the corner.
“It was cruel, yes, but that is football. It gives you joy, and it takes it away. We all knew we should have been in the final, instead we were the almost team. That is hard to deal with, unless you have been through something like that in sport, it is very hard to explain.
“The thing I have taken comfort from is that Ajax did far more than reach a final. All around Europe, we won so much support. People don’t always like Ajax, especially in Holland, but when you saw the way we played, the style of football, the young players, how could you not be impressed? I think everyone wanted us to be in the final.
“That makes me feel really proud. It is a great thing. There was no trophy for that, but we won hearts and we made people love our football. What could be more important? How many teams are able to do that?”
Young, bold and brave, Ajax played without fear. That was their downfall. Rather than sit back and defend their lead against Spurs, they could not be boring and run the clock down.
Even after Spurs had pulled two goals back, they were convinced they would score another themselves, only to concede with virtually the last kick of the game.
“We won the league and cup in Holland,” Tadic added. “We got to the Champions League semi-final. We did not fail. That is not failure.
“We beat Real Madrid and Juventus, we should have beaten Tottenham. We won so much respect, we changed the way people think about Ajax and we have helped change the way people think about the Champions League. So many teams got to a semi-final playing defensively against the big clubs in the past, we attacked all of them.”
Ajax should not be as strong this season. Budget restraints, combined with their personal ambition, meant it was impossible to hold on to midfielder Frenkie de Jong and centre-back De Ligt.
De Jong has left for Barcelona, De Ligt has gone to Juventus and Ajax are around £150 million better off. Everyone knew it was going to happen, yet Tadic, who has replaced De Ligt as captain, argued things are not as bad as they might have been.
“We were not sad De Jong and De Ligt left,” Tadic replies when asked about Ajax’s star pupils. “We will miss them, but it’s the next step for them and Ajax likes to support their player who feel the time is right to move on.
“They have both gone to big clubs, nobody was surprised. The nice thing is, there were a lot of other players who could have left and decided to stay because they are having their best days here. This is important.
“It will be harder without those two, but not impossible. We still have a good team, we can still win trophies, we can still do well in Europe and there are more young players coming through who will make their impact.
“Ajax have sold big players before, that is the way of life for us, so it is up to the young players to stand up and take more responsibility. They will have a chance, there are so many of them coming through.”
Hakim Ziyech, David Neres, Donny van de Beek and Nicolas Tagliafico are four who chose to stay, although for Tadic, there is no desire to leave Holland despite scoring a stunning 33 goals in 39 appearances since a £14 million move from Southampton in 2018.
He intends to make his family home in Holland, but at the age of 30 has no motivation to have another crack at English football.
“I’m a better player now than I was [in England],” Tadic explained. “I am playing with better players, I am playing for a team that wants to play ultra-offensive football, I am able to show the best of myself.
“I enjoyed my time at Southampton, especially the first two years. We had a strong team, we had some excellent players. The second two years were tough. We didn’t have a good team, it became a lot more difficult.
“I was 29 when I left for Ajax and I can confidently say I made the right decision. It is easier to show my true self for Ajax, it was harder at Southampton. I stopped enjoying it. I wanted to come to Ajax and I have enjoyed every minute.”
Featured from our writers