Juggling UWCL and domestic league is tough, just ask Ajax

Ajax surprised and delighted many with their attacking football to progress from a tough UEFA Women's Champions League (UWCL) group stage containing Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and Roma, only to be soundly beaten 3-0 by Chelsea in their first-ever quarterfinal. But had the writing already been on the wall for the Dutch title holders?

Six points behind Twente at the top of the Vrouwen Eredivisie table with five games to go, it has been a tough season domestically and though they have a chance to reach the KNVB Cup final, facing Feyenoord in the semifinals on April 16, things have not looked right for the three-time Eredivisie champions. So what has gone wrong?

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Champions League campaign falls flat

It was always going to be a tough ask for Ajax against Emma Hayes' Chelsea especially as their starting XI was missing key players, namely 33-year-old midfielder Sherida Spitse -- one of the most-experienced in the Eredivisie -- and young forward Ashleigh Weerden. Yet youngsters like Lily Yohannes (16) and Romée Leuchter (23), who had impressed so much during the group stage, struggled to make an impact.

Even at the Johan Cruyff Arena, where all three of Ajax's group stage wins had come, and in front of a vociferous home crowd (the largest of the matchday at 35,997), the gap to Europe's elite felt vast and, for now at least, insurmountable. And maybe the warning signs had already been there.

PSG's attack was still a work in progressed when they visited the Netherlands and lost 2-0, while both Bayern (1-0) and Roma (2-1) were going through their own respective sticky patches. So while Ajax deserved those victories, it seems that timing was on their side. Against a Chelsea team which had recently found a solution to their own attacking maladies -- promoting Sjoeke Nüsken to striker -- and without their favoured backline to call upon, Ajax looked like a team from one of Europe's weaker leagues last week.

Nüsken's two goals, coming after an opener from Lauren James, likely put the tie beyond doubt ahead of the second leg on Wednesday.

Of the four runners-up, no team impressed as much in the group stage as Ajax, so the 3-0 defeat to Chelsea was a big disappointment. All four less-fancied sides lost in the first leg (Benfica vs. Lyon, Brann vs. Barcelona, Häcken vs. PSG -- all by 2-1 scorelines) but the other three at least managed to find some of the joy that saw them progress to the knockout round.

But Ajax's focus on the UWCL has also disrupted their domestic campaign.

Off the pace in the Eredivisie

Just four days after their home win against PSG at the start of the group stage, Ajax fell to a 1-0 defeat at home to Twente. More dropped points would come three days after the return trip to Paris (a 3-1 defeat) when they hosted Fortuna Sittard and drew 1-1.

Ajax's Chasity Grant told ESPN after the game with Roma that it was hard for the young team to adapt to the extra loading that came with the intensity of midweek games, with players and staff all having to learn. Indeed, unlike some of their European counterparts, Ajax lack the depth to field a strong team against their domestic rivals if they're putting their best XI out in the UWCL.

It's been a learning curve for Ajax in that regard, but the Eredivisie is simply not on par with England's Women's Super League, Spain's Liga F, France's Division 1 Feminin, or even the German Frauen-Bundesliga. It's a league for developing homegrown talent, for nurturing and educating -- the first crucial stepping stone on the path to a professional career for women in the Netherlands -- but not one set up for a team to compete in Europe.

Indeed, just as we have seen with the men's side -- who have let the likes of Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt and Donny van de Beek move on in recent times -- the Eredivisie readies Ajax's players for what is next and, once they are ready, those who are good enough leave for a more competitive league.

It's why the majority of Netherlands' women's national team is made up of players who ply their trade elsewhere in Europe: be it Vivianne Miedema and Victoria Pelova at Arsenal, or Esmee Brugts at Barcelona, or Daniëlle van de Donk at Lyon. For players approaching their peak years, the Eredivisie is not much of a draw and for someone like Leuchter (who has averaged a goal a game over the last three seasons) it surely won't be long before she moves on too.

Whenever Leuchter does move on, Ajax will likely look to promote another talent from their academy, keeping the pipeline greased to the senior squad and ensuring Ajax's style and ethic is always present on the pitch. But the departures in Amsterdam, won't just be on the pitch as current manager Suzanne Bakker is leaving at the end of the season, after the club decided not to renew her contract.

So maybe, with all that in mind, it's not such a surprise that Ajax's young guns fell flat against Chelsea. Perhaps for players who don't have the opportunity to play professional teams each week, as not all clubs in the Vrouwen Eredivisie are full-time, and whose international experience is largely at youth level, the pressure and weight of expectation was a little too great. At least Ajax know they are almost certain to at least finish in second place this season, and earn a return to the UWCL.

There's no pressure on Ajax for the second leg with the tie all but over. If they can score a goal and bring back some of the magic we saw from the group stage, it would go a long way to remind everyone of the history they have already written this season.