AMSTERDAM: Ajax Amsterdam's promising young cast rekindled memories of past glories by reaching the Champions League last 16 but Saturday's league defeat has underlined their recent poor form and set the alarm bells ringing with the upcoming visit of Real Madrid.
The 1-0 loss at Heracles Almelo was only the second time Ajax had been beaten by the provincial team but was marked by players arguing with each other in a defeat teenage captain Matthijs de Ligt termed “scandalous”.
A repeat performance against Real Madrid in Wednesday's first leg would be fatal to their chances of progressing in Europe's top club competition.
“We cannot afford to play as we did against Heracles. If we do so we will be slaughtered. For Ajax to be outplayed by Heracles is scandalous,” De Ligt told reporters.
Just months ago, Ajax were being lauded after finishing behind Bayern Munich in the group phase, eliminating Benfica and AEK Athens. They were also breathing down the necks of PSV Eindhoven in the Dutch league race, hoping to end a four-year title drought.
But since returning from the winter break, Ajax have won only twice in five outings, including a 6-2 defeat at arch rivals Feyenoord, and slipped six points off the pace in the Dutch championship.
Dutch newspapers have been quick to offer reasons for their recent struggles.
“Ajax do not look to have the mental strength to stand up to Real,” was the scathing summation of former Dutch international Wim van Hanegem in his regular column on Monday.
Others have speculated about the side being plagued by too much individualism, blamed a porous defence and said manager Erik ten Hag had his hands tied by a restrictive transfer policy.
Frenkie de Jong has also come in for criticism. The midfielder is heading to Barcelona at the end of the season after his 86 million euros (75 million pounds) transfer agreement but he has not been living up to that price tag.
Dusan Tadic feels all is not lost, however.
“I believe we can still beat anyone," said the midfielder at the weekend. "Others might be talking about how badly we are playing now but we must go out and show we can still do it.”
(Writing by Mark Gleeson; Editing by Peter Rutherford)