THE sense of excitement and even expectation in the smoke-filled coffee shops and jam-packed bars of Amsterdam this week has been just the same as it was when Ronald de Boer helped Ajax to conquer Europe back in his playing days.

But the way the Dutch club have succeeded on the continent this season – and they have progressed to the quarter-finals of the Champions League after going undefeated in Group D and then defeating defending champions Real Madrid 4-1 in the Bernabeu in the second leg of their last 16 tie last month – has been quite different to his time around.

De Boer was, along with his brother Frank, Michael Reiziger, Frank Rijkaard, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids and Patrick Kluivert, one of several products of the fabled Ajax youth system to feature in a 1-0 triumph over AC Milan in the final of the competition in Vienna in 1995.

This time around, though, the four-time winners have flourished thanks to investing heavily in the transfer market; the team that takes to the field against Juventus in the first leg of the last eight double header in the Johan Cruyff Arena this evening will be full of expensive acquisitions and overseas imports.

In modern football terms, the money that Ajax have spent on the likes of Hakim Ziyech (€11m), David Neres (€12m), Zakaria Labyad (€8.25m), Dusan Tadic (€11.4m), Daley Blind (€16m) in the past few seasons has not been remarkable by any means. However, for the iconic Netherlands club it has been a definite departure.

“What has helped Ajax get to this point has been a big change in philosophy,” said De Boer, the former Rangers striker who is now assistant manager at the A1 or under-19 team, yesterday as he looked ahead to the much-anticipated meeting with Juventus this evening.

“They are now prepared to spend more money on players than they used to. Last year they signed Daley Blind from Manchester United, for example, for a price they wouldn’t have considered before. Buying players for over €15m wasn’t on previously. The limit was around €5m before. They kept their wallet closed.

“But they won four championships in a row under my brother Frank between 2011 and 2014. They also sold players like Davinson Sanchez (for €42m to Spurs in 2017), Davy Klaassen (for €27m to Everton in 2017) and Justin Kluivert (for €22.75m to Roma in 2018) for reasonable money. The bank account rose and rose until they had more than €100m in it.

“But the club weren’t doing so well. Fans started to say: ‘We aren’t winning prizes and that is what football is all about! Why don’t we spend some of the money?’ They have brought in extra quality to the team, but they have also added experience. The balance of the team is far stronger.”

Head coach Erik ten Hag has also succeeded in unearthing a real gem for a bargain basement fee. Nicolas Tagliafico was signed for just €4.5m from Banfield in his native Argentina at the start of last year. But the left back has proved to be nothing short of a revelation.

“Tagliafico is now the captain of his country,” said de Boer. “He is indestructible, a warrior. He is 26 now and is very experienced. Ajax are much more mature with Tadic, Blind and also Tagliafico. That has been invaluable.”

Yet, Ajax have, as De Boer can vouch from to his personal involvement in the club, by no means abandoned the traditional youth policy which served them so well over the decades and enabled them to win the European Cup three years running back in the 1970s with a team comprised largely of home-grown players.

“There is also a lot of unbelievable young talent as well, like Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong, Donny van de Beek, Noussair Mazraoui, Andre Onana, David Neres and Kasper Dolberg,” said De Boer. “That mixture is working very well. If you compare it to our time in 1995 it was basically the same. We had Frank Rijkaard and Danny Blind, but the rest of us were young guys.

“I have worked with a lot of these guys. It is great to see that what we have always advocated is still working. Because of what we teach in at Ajax – playing with your mind and good technical ability – we strongly believe we will always survive. The football is entertaining and people want to come to the stadium to see it. It is what makes Ajax special.”

De Boer has savoured the success that Ajax, who hadn’t competed in the group stages of the Champions League for five long years before this season, have enjoyed in Europe in recent months. He thinks Juventus, who look set to welcome back Cristiano Ronaldo, are favourites to prevail. But he feels the Italians will need to be at their very best in order to progress through to the semi-finals.

“Everybody is looking forward to the game,” he said. “A lot of people believe in a good outcome. But I am not so sure that is realistic. If there was a good time to play Madrid it was last month. Everybody who follows Spanish football knew Real weren’t in the best form. Of course, nobody in the world expected Ajax to go through. It was a big surprise.

“But I don’t think it’s possible for Ajax to win the Champions League. They have made a step forward, that’s for sure, but winning it is too difficult. In my time, clubs were only allowed to have three foreign players. Now they can buy an entire foreign team.

“I don’t think they will ever be able to buy players for €40m. The Dutch league is just too small for Ajax to do that. I don’t think they will ever win the Champions League again. Of course, I hope I am wrong.”

De Boer continued: “What I like about what has happened is it is like watching the Ajax of old – the team is creative, entertaining and plays with a lot of guts. It is nice to see them back on a European stage and everyone is talking about what a great team they are.

“Reaching the final of the Europa League two years ago was an unbelievable achievement, something I doubted could ever happen again. They had a bit of luck during their run to the final, in their games against Lyon and Schalke. But getting to the final was amazing.

“If Juve are thinking it will be easy or if they aren’t at their best they will get a very difficult game indeed. I know that for sure. When Ajax play well and their opponents aren’t at their best then they have a really good chance.”