Ajax's Europa League Progress Vital for Dutch Football

Liam Newman@@thatliamnewmanContributor IFebruary 18, 2014

Ajax's Danny Hoesen celebrates after scoring to take the score to 2-0, with Davy Klaassen right, during the Group H Champions League soccer match between Ajax and FC Barcelona at the ArenA stadium in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Tuesday Nov. 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Patrick Post)
Patrick Post/Associated Press

On Thursday, Eredivisie champions Ajax face Austria's Red Bull Salzburg in the Europa League's first knockout round.

In truth, the fact that the Austrians visit Amsterdam with genuine hopes of progression—combined with the lack of other Eredivisie representatives, AZ aside, in the latter stages of European competition—highlights that Dutch football is currently suffering. For that reason, it is important for Frank de Boer's men to advance.

With the likes of Juventus, Tottenham, Napoli and Shakhtar Donetsk still in the competition, Ajax's chances of reaching the final are minimal. However, falling at such a premature stage would come as a bitter blow for one of Europe's most successful clubs.

Ajax boast four European Cups to their name and would have had no trouble defeating a side of Salzburg's caliber in years gone by, especially over two legs. The Austrians might be comfortably strolling to their domestic title, but that is indicative of a poor division rather than a fantastic Red Bull side.

Then again, the same could be said for Ajax's position at the top of Eredivisie.

Quite worryingly, if Ajax were to be knocked out by the Austrians, the fallout could be detrimental to the Eredivisie in general. With no 'big name' Dutch representatives reaching the last 16 of either European competition, it is hard to see why any top players would want to stay in the country. Likewise, it would be difficult for clubs to recruit imports of any real quality.

While it is great to see such a high percentage of Dutch youngsters given a chance, an absence of genuine stars would inevitably have a negative impact on the domestic game and could potentially see the gap between Eredivisie and other top European leagues increase even more.  

Although de Boer's side are the favourites to qualify, it wouldn't be a huge surprise if the Austrians prevail. Salzburg might not boast any household names, but they are a decent enough outfit, and confidence will be high, as they are on a run of seven successive victories in their domestic league. Additionally, they won all six of their Europa League Group C encounters, conceding just twice in the process.

Meanwhile, Ajax dropped out of the Champions League. In their defence, they were dealt a tough draw and were never fancied to progress from a group that contained Barcelona and AC Milan.

Regardless of Dutch football's poor state, winning three consecutive titles doesn't come easy, and the fact that Ajax are favourites to retain the Eredivisie crown yet again shows that they are still doing something right. In Siem de Jong, Ricardo van Rhijn and Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, there are still some very talented players plying their trade at the Amsterdam Arena. The emergence of Davy Klaassen suggests that the club—and indeed countrywill continue to produce top stars in the coming years.

The challenge of Salzburg will not be easy, but it is one Ajax should be able to overcome. For the sake of Dutch football, it's important that they do.