Stories

7 brilliant teams pulled apart before they could fulfil their potential

Ajax 2018-19

Oh, Ajax... it's coming. It's happened to them before, of course – and these other European club sides who had their best players sold before they could achieve ultimate glory

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Frenkie de Jong has already agreed to join Barcelona. Matthijs de Ligt is likely to do the same before long. Nicolas Tagliafico is linked with Arsenal and Tottenham; David Neres is at the centre of a tug of war between several clubs; so too, the mercurial Hakim Ziyech. 

But such is life when you're the talent factory that is Ajax. With the Eredivisie way behind financially in comparison to its Big Five neighbours, the Dutch giants face a constant battle to keep their finest stars – not least when they're doing daft things like beating Real Madrid and Juventus en route to the Champions League semi-finals. 

They've been here before – several times – but just check out that crop of 2003/04... 

Monaco (2003/04)

Before Bernardo, Bakayoko, Mendy and Mbappe, read Evra, Morientes, Rothen and Giuly. Of this quartet, only Evra hadn't left within months of Monaco's defeat in the 2004 Champions League Final by Jose Mourinho's Porto (incidentally, a side that did actually achieve greatness before their squad was similarly dismantled).

As Rothen joined PSG, the on-loan Morientes left for Liverpool – the following season's European champions – via Real Madrid, while Giuly was sold to Barcelona, who succeeded Liverpool in 2006. That such a flawed team won the 2005 Champions League only heightens the sense of Monaco's missed opportunity.

Evra joined Manchester United in January 2006, the same transfer window in which Monaco forward Emmanuel Adebayor was also sold to Arsenal, as the squad that reached the Champions League final was filleted of its talent.

Bayer Leverkusen (2001/02)

In one impressive yet agonising season, Leverkusen missed out on the Bundesliga title on the final day – and then in the finals of the DFB-Pokal and Champions League. If that wasn’t enough, there’s further regret that they never had the chance to prove they'd learned from such mistakes. 

Michael Ballack was the force of nature who inspired much of what was so nearly one of the truly great club seasons. But in what has become a familiar theme, that summer he and team-mate Ze Roberto joined Bayern Munich. Between losing that pair, plus Lucio – who joined Bayern two years later – and Dimitar Berbatov, who left for Tottenham in 2006, Leverkusen couldn't maintain their momentum.

HORROR TREBLE Remembering the worst collapse in European football

Ajax (2003/04)

Ajax's Champions League-winning side of the '90s was rightly lionised, but there seems little question that another squad the following decade could have achieved similar success. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart, Jari Litmanen, Nigel de Jong, Thomas Vermaelen, Maxwell and Hatem Trabelsi were far from their collective peak in 2003/04, but they constituted a formidable collection of talent.

Ibrahimovic's departure to Juventus in the summer of 2004 was the first of many exits that undermined any ambition to match the achievements of a decade earlier. The squad was picked apart so quickly in the following years that by the time future Champions League winner Sneijder joined Real Madrid in 2007, only Vermaelen remained.

Dynamo Kiev (1998/99)

The entertaining Ukrainian champions beat Real Madrid, Barcelona and Arsenal in the 1998/99 Champions League – then came within a 4-3 aggregate defeat by Bayern Munich of reaching the final.

Had they done so – and had eventual winners Manchester United made the same poor start they had against Bayern – the lethal partnership of Sergei Rebrov and Andriy Shevchenko may have taken a dramatic comeback beyond United’s reach.

Shevchenko immediately joined Milan, where he would prove one of their finest players, and club captain Oleg Luzhny – far more influential than he ever was in England – signed for Arsenal. Rebrov followed Luzhny to London with Tottenham 12 months later, and Shevchenko was eventually joined in Milan by Kakha Kaladze. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dynamo have yet to truly recover.