Dusan Tadic & Daley Blind: Premier League 'rejects' chase Ajax Champions League glory
They were summer transfers that barely raised an eyebrow - but now look to be two of the signings of the season.
Deemed surplus to requirements at their Premier League clubs, Ajax signed 30-year-old Dusan Tadic from Southampton for £10m and Daley Blind, 29, from Manchester United for an initial £14m.
Fast forward nine months and it looks to be an astute piece of business by the Dutch club.
Serbia forward Tadic has just scored his 34th goal and registered his 21st assist of the season, while Blind has formed a formidable defensive partnership with 19-year-old captain and Netherlands team-mate Matthijs de Ligt.
The pair are a key part of Ajax's treble-chasing team and will line up at Tottenham in the Champions League semi-final first leg on Tuesday (20:00 BST kick-off).
While Tadic and Blind's transfer fees may seem cheap in Premier League terms, for Ajax and the Dutch top flight they are considered expensive purchases - the club's record signing is still Serbia winger Miralem Sulejmani, who they bought for £14.63m in 2008.
Dutch football expert Elko Born says the club have recently altered their transfer strategy by raising their salary cap and bringing in more experienced players.
Ajax manager Erik ten Hag said he and director of football Marc Overmars decided at the end of last season that their side "lacked experience - players in their mid-20s".
"It was a pretty big step to take, but the investment has paid off," Born tells BBC Sport. "The combination of the rise of Frenkie de Jong and De Ligt, two of the biggest talents in Europe and astute clever signings for a lot of money, has seen the stars align for Ajax."
Tadic rivalling Europe's best
Tadic scored 24 goals in 162 games for Southampton in four years, but he has surpassed that tally already in just 51 matches for Ajax.
He is second behind PSV Eindhoven's Luuk de Jong, who has 27 goals, in the Eredivisie scoring charts, among the top domestic goalscorers in Europe and second only to Barcelona forward Lionel Messi for goal contributions in the Champions League.
Ajax have scored 160 goals this season - the most ever by a Dutch club - and Tadic has been involved in 34% of them.
Two of those assists and one of the goals came in the 4-1 demolition of Real Madrid in the last 16 of the Champions League - a display which earned him a rare 10/10 rating from prestigious French newspaper L'Equipe.
"Ajax fans are not used to buying players from the Premier League," says Born. "They remember Tadic from his time at [Dutch clubs] Groningen and FC Twente and expected big things. But he has had an amazing season, better than they expected."
Ten Hag gave Tadic a free role in his side. He often plays from the left wing but has led the line on European nights as a false nine.
He and Morocco attacking midfielder Hakim Ziyech are Ajax's creators - afforded the freedom by playing in front of midfielders De Jong, Lasse Schone and Donny van de Beek.
Tadic has said he was "tired" of the Premier League, suggesting that offensive players do not get enough protection from referees.
"The Premier League might have been been too physical for him - but he really suits Ajax's style of play," adds Born. "They are a technical team who want the ball and pierce their way through the defence with clever football."
Such has been Tadic's success this season, he is already being linked with a move away from the club - not that Ten Hag thinks he can go any higher.
"We are in the semi-finals of the Champions League, at which higher level should he be able to compete?" Ten Hag said earlier in April.
"He has had a lot of fun in this role and an incredible return. I think he has never achieved such a return. He has already taken that step to a higher level."
Blind back home
Manchester United fans might be casting an envious eye in the direction of Ajax as their team struggles defensively.
Blind was brought to United by fellow Dutchman Louis van Gaal in 2014, but his appearances were reduced under Jose Mourinho and he rejoined his boyhood club in July.
The Netherlands international has started every Eredivisie game for Ajax, completing the most successful passes in the competition this season and scoring five goals. He has also started all 10 of their Champions League fixtures.
"Fans were more sceptical about Blind," says Born. "It was a huge transfer fee, especially for a defender. But that scepticism has gone now, he has proven he was well worth the money."
Blind is another to benefit from Ten Hag's system and his relationship with De Ligt has been key to Ajax's success.
Born added: "He was not suited to the Premier League. Defenders can be physical and it was more about long balls forward against strong attackers.
"But Ajax have the ball all the time. There is not much defending in terms of duels or headers, it is about being in the right position to receive the ball and help the attack.
"De Ligt is stronger than Blind - more of a stopper - whereas Blind is more technical and has more of an active role going forward. De Light's confidence seems to have made Blind more confident, they are great partners and have great chemistry."
|Blind's Eredivisie 2018-19 stats|
|Games Started: 32|
|Successful passes: 2220 (First in league)|
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