It is almost 22 years since Tijani Babangida delicately chipped Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jose Molina in the 119th minute at Vicente Calderon, sending Louis van Gaal's Ajax into the Champions League semi-finals.
The date was March 19, 1997, and it was the last time the club won a knockout tie in Europe’s most prestigious cup competition – two months before Frenkie de Jong was born. He was eight, playing youth football in Tilburg, the last time they reached the round of 16.
Now 21, the man referred to as the next Johan Cruyff and the future of Netherlands football – comparisons that make the midfielder humbly uncomfortable – is tasked with leading a bid to dethrone the three-time defending champions.
Real Madrid will have the pleasure of seeing De Jong up close for the first time on Wednesday, but certainly not the last ahead of his record €75million move to Barcelona in June.
Revered for his hypnotic dribbling, widescreen vision, savvy passing and a football acumen well beyond his years, De Jong is the fulcrum of an Ajax side unbeaten through 12 Champions League matches this season. But, while the Camp Nou-bound technician is the headline act, he is complemented by the most talented group of players to grace the club in over a decade.
De Jong's impending transfer is expected to be the first domino in a predicted mass exodus from the Johan Cruyff Arena later this year. Despite a worrying recent slump in the Eredivisie, going toe-to-toe with Madrid grants De Jong's talented team-mates a chance to announce themselves to Europe's footballing public and put its elite clubs on notice.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT
If Frenkie de Jong is the spine of this Ajax team, Matthijs de Ligt is the heart. An animated and fearless leader in defence, the skipper's rare ability is only exceeded by his unrivaled passion. De Ligt is a modern day centre-back with old school tendencies – a strong reader of the game who excels on the ball and is always keen to impose his physical presence. He possesses every quality necessary to reach the pinnacle of his craft.
The one knock on the 19-year-old is he has a tendency to overcomplicate things at times. He shoulders a lot of responsibility, sometimes biting off more than he can chew. He needs to trust more in his team-mates and learn to simplify things – a quality that will undoubtedly come with age. Ajax are set to cash in on De Ligt at the end of the season. With Juventus, PSG and Barcelona circling, the club are expected to receive a fee in the region of what the Blaugrana paid for De Jong.
Ajax conceded 10 goals in the two games Tagliafico missed with a knee injury last month, more than they had in the entire first half of the Eredivisie season. A plug-it-and-forget-it name on the team sheet for coach Erik ten Hag, the left-back is a furiously tenacious defender despite his diminutive stature.
Tagliafico was not renowned for his attacking abilities when he left Independiente in his native Argentina last January, but the 26-year-old has flourished in Ajax's attacking system. While the defensive side of his game remains his strongest attribute, his desire to get forward offers Dusan Tadic the flexibility to roam inside and yielded three goals in five Champions League group matches. The likes of Arsenal and Atletico Madrid are reported to have taken note.
If Ajax are to unlock the Real Madrid defence, Ziyech will be the key. A wonderfully enterprising figure in midfield, the Moroccan playmaker makes Ajax tick – the type of player who can put the team on his back and completely take over a game. His exceptional vision allows him to split defences with his long-passing ability. Never afraid to take on a defender, his fierce left foot means goalkeepers must be on high alert for long-range shots.
Ziyech will be relishing the opportunity to go up against Los Blancos. Blessed with outstanding technical gifts and rarely lacking in confidence, the 25-year-old boasts 12 goals and eight assists in 18 Eredivisie matches this season.
While Ziyech will be called upon to create the goals, Onana will be tasked with keeping them out. The Cameroon goalkeeper has consistently improved since arriving at De Toekomst in 2015. The 22-year-old's long frame and sharp reflexes make him an excellent shot-stopper, but it's his play on the ball that makes him so valuable. Onana's excellent distribution is a key component in helping Ajax to break down their opponents' first line of defence.
And while the magnitude of the occasion is incentive enough, Onana should have a bit of added motivation having been reared at Barcelona's academy.
DONNY VAN DE BEEK
Perhaps the most undervalued and least publicised name on this list, Van de Beek embodies Ajax's fighting spirit. Often overlooked by those unfamiliar with his body of work, the 21-year-old boasts an unwavering desire and never lacks in intensity. His passion makes him something of a fans' favourite and he has the ability to match.
The Ajax youth product is astute in his reading of the game, displaying refreshingly direct passing and excellent movement off the ball. 'Maradonny' often embarks on powerful, probing runs to carve out scoring opportunities. Composed in tight spaces, he also has the cool head required to make his signature late runs into the box count. It is no surprise the likes of Chelsea, Tottenham and Roma are among Van de Beek's rumoured admirers.
|Green playing ´unbelievably well´, says Kerr|
|Astros get 10th straight win with defeat of Red Sox|
|Warriors´ Iguodala to undergo MRI as Finals beckon|
|Three takeaways from Golden State´s comeback win over Portland|
|Wilder asks for patience over Joshua fight|
|Warriors on verge of NBA Finals after trumping Trail Blazers|
|Wilder retains title with first-round knockout of Breazeale|
|MLS Review: Rooney scores in DC defeat, Wondolowski breaks record|
|Larson wins $1m NASCAR All-Star Race after qualifying in Open|
|Nurse wants Raptors to ´play their a** off´ and change series|
|My last great moment at Allianz Arena – Ribery revels in Bundesliga triumph|
|Eagles defensive end Long announces retirement|
|Ribery, Robben shaped Bayern & Bundesliga – Kovac|
|Favre left disappointed after Dortmund miss out on title|
|Sancho targets Bundesliga glory with Dortmund next season|
|Koepka has no doubts he´ll win US PGA Championship|
|Johnson looking for ´some help´ from Koepka|
|History awaits as Koepka takes record seven-shot lead at US PGA|
|Of course I will be here – Cavani wants to stay at PSG|
|Saunders targets ´big names´ after becoming two-weight world champion|
|Kane stars as USA close on quarter-final berth|
|Lyon president Aulas urges PSG to make Ndombele move|
|Sylvinho, Juninho to join Lyon as coach and sporting director|
|Dupichot and Zebo grab hat-tricks as Racing 92 rout Perpignan|
|Sensational Inoue hammers Rodriguez to win IBF bantamweight belt|
|Do not steal goals, Raheem! Sterling offers explanation for Pep-talk|
|Ouch! Djokovic embarrassed after accidentally hitting ball boy|
|Ronaldo pays tribute to departing Allegri|
|We need to score that chance - Gracia rues Pereyra miss in City humbling|
|Benfica crush Santa Clara to clinch title and pass 100-goals mark|
|Derby strikes and play-off failings – Wondolowski´s MLS goals record in Opta numbers|
|Goal-shy Piatek must focus on Milan - Gattuso|
|There is a score there for me - McIlroy pleased with improved display|
|Guardiola: Man City treble feat harder than Champions League but can be repeated|
|Djokovic edges out Schwartzman to set up Nadal final|
|Koepka still well clear despite slight Bethpage wobble|
|Paris Saint-Germain 4 Dijon 0: Mbappe closes on Messi with brace|
|Guardiola fumes at payment question after FA Cup win|
|Stormers hold Crusaders to dramatic draw after Lions win thriller|
|Mentally I was done – De Bruyne on injury nightmare|
|Sterling denied FA Cup final hat-trick as Jesus awarded Man City´s second goal|
|Guardiola demands improvement from treble-winning Manchester City|
|Madness – Sterling astonished by De Bruyne´s FA Cup cameo|
|Take another look at Manchester City´s sensational six FA Cup final goals|
|Man City treble: Are Guardiola´s men the best team of the Premier League era?|
|Chiefs finish top as Saints edge out Quins for fourth|
|Runaway leader Koepka starts round three at Bethpage|
|Bundesliga 2018-19: Jadon Sancho – Dortmund´s golden boy in numbers|
|Hegerberg hat-trick earns Lyon sixth Women´s Champions League title|
|Magician David Silva makes treble-winning history for Manchester City|
|Man City are the best team in the world - Kompany|
|Man City treble: Five unsung moments in Guardiola´s domestic clean sweep|
|Manchester City 6 Watford 0: Sterling double helps secure unprecedented domestic treble|
|Catalans crush Warriors at Camp Nou in front of record crowd|
|Pliskova beats Sakkari in Rome repeat, Konta upsets Bertens|
|Valencia clinch Champions League qualification on final day|
|Kovac ´convinced´ he will be Bayern Munich boss next season|
|MotoGP Raceweek: Marquez will be ´safer´ in Le Mans race|
|Ewan sprints home to end Giro wait|
|Leinster gut out Munster win to set up Warriors final|
|Bundesliga 2018-19: Dortmund excite but still no match for transitioning Bayern|
|Nadal gets revenge on Tsitsipas to reach Rome final|
|Bundesliga 2018-19: How Bayern beat Dortmund to the title|
|FA Cup final: Man City bench Aguero against Watford|
|Borussia Monchengladbach 0 Borussia Dortmund 2: Three points not enough for runners-up|
|Bayern Munich 5 Eintracht Frankfurt 1: Robben and Ribery strike to seal seventh consecutive Bundesli|
|Bayern Munich clinch seventh successive Bundesliga title|
|Werder veteran Pizarro to sign new contract|
|Valverde unsure whether Barcelona will swoop for ´great player´ Griezmann|
|Allegri open to offers but could take year out from coaching|