One Ajax player who will be familiar to Manchester City tonight in their third Champions League group stage match is former Liverpool attacker Ryan Babel, whose underachieving career has lead him back to where he began and now belongs.
Babel left Amsterdam in 2007 after he excelled, with several others, in one of the most exciting Holland Under-21 teams at that summer's European Championship. Naturally Premier League clubs formed the queue of suitors, as Daniel de Ridder joined Birmingham City on a free, Maceo Rigters headed further north to Blackburn Rovers for £500,000 and Babel swiftly reneged on his pledge to stay with Ajax for another year to sign for Liverpool in a deal worth £14m.
The success reaped by Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars, Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Robin van Persie et al. on British shores were auspicious signs for Babel, then just 20. But in the five years that have elapsed since, poor professionalism, Twitter notoriety and spectacular falls from grace have become synonymous with Babel and the class of 2007.
Babel quietly impressed at Liverpool initially. He scored the Champions League quarter-final clincher against Arsenal and hit a Kop winner past Manchester United in 2008. But he was often overlooked by Rafael Benítez, who preferred the selfless discipline of right-sided compatriot Dirk Kuyt, despite Babel’s superior ability.
And then when Babel was afforded a rare chance his performances were erratic, most patently when he scored a phenomenal opener away to Lyon yet frustrated thereafter as Liverpool eventually dropped two crucial points in a Champions League group stage fixture.
With more spare time on his hands Babel discovered Twitter, and was soon fined two weeks' wages worth £120,000 by Benítez for revealing he was dropped for a match against Stoke City. A year later, he posted an image on the site of referee Howard Webb in a Manchester United shirt after Liverpool’s 1-0 defeat in the FA Cup at Old Trafford, and was charged by the FA with improper conduct and fined £10,000.
Sold to 1899 Hoffenheim for half of his £14m fee at the end of January, he underachieved badly and his spell in Germany was a miserable one. Babel bought out the remaining three years of his contract in order to return to the Netherlands.
Under Frank de Boer's management he has a surrogate father figure to confide in who just by signing Babel has shown belief in him which many others do not share on the continent.
Already he has scored twice after seven appearances for Ajax this season. He will hope that by playing in the Eredivisie he can attract the attention of Louis van Gaal and return to the international set-up but Babel has flattered to deceive too often already.
None of his 22 goals came against Manchester City, but the back-to-back European games against the Premier League champions will afford him the chance to discover consistency which has eluded him for the majority of his career.