Ajax v Barcelona preview: Frank de Boer’s men set out to achieve the impossibleIt’s rather extraordinary how the attitude around Ajax’s campaign has changed in just a few weeks. After a series of fruitless and rather embarrassing performances, a Champions League win followed by two straight league victories has suddenly altered the mood around the potency and the prospects of this Ajax team in both competitions.
Frank de Boer has resumed talking about the possibilities of his side taking second place in their Champions League group, which is in stark contrast to the mood around the club ahead of their meeting with Celtic in the Amsterdam ArenA.
The 1-0 victory over Neil Lennon’s men created a three way battle for the runner up spot between the two teams and Milan. The Italian side may look the favourites to occupy that spot come the conclusion to the group stage, but they are in an undeniable dark place. They are spectacularly tame and unpredictable and have only a loose, limp, one-handed grip on second place at the moment. Furthermore, Massimiliano Allegri’s team have a disadvantage of having to meet Celtic tonight in the Glasgow side’s very own Fortress of Solitude.
Of the three potential runners-up, Ajax have it toughest, but there really doesn’t appear to be much between the three teams. After hosting Barcelona in Amsterdam, they must travel to Milan in the final matchday as they look to better the 1-1 they had to settle for in the home leg. Given Ajax’s away record this season (they haven’t won a single game on the road), it picking up a win in either of these two games looks like a gargantuan task.
It’s rather unfair, though, to say that all hope is lost.
The coach knows Barcelona’s strengths, which will help him control them as he looks to set up his team to assert themselves and play the iconic Ajax style he has reintroduced since taking over three years ago.
“We are trying to prepare as well as possible for the match,” said the Ajax boss in his pre-match press conference. “They have more quality but that does not always decide who wins. I hope we can get the best out of ourselves, play well and get a good result. But for me it’s always about the football and if you play well than you can get a good result.”
The coach latterly remarked on the more direct style Barcelona are currently playing under new coach Gerardo Martino.
“We have noticed that they try to get behind the defence a bit quicker than they did before, when they tried to push the opponents back into their own box and then find a space. I think it’s a bit more Argentinian now.”
Recognising the direct mentality of the Blaugrana is key as De Boer shapes his defence to hold them off. With Joel Veltman partnering Niklas Moisander in the centre of defence instead of Stefano Denswil, the hosts are in a decent position to keep Martino’s men at bay for a long spell. The 21-year-old made his Netherlands debut last week and has been incredible since he was drafted into the Ajax first-team. Veltman is more intelligent and patient than Denswil and reads the game slightly better.
De Boer further reiterated his desire to send his team out with a view to pressing and dominating the game with their iconic style. Principles that De Boer will never allow his team to compromise.
“We have the same philosophy as Barcelona, we play technically and we want to attack. We always think more offensively than defensively and this is similar. I’m used to playing like this as a player and as a coach I want to play the same and show that tomorrow.”
The former Ajax and Barcelona icon has admitted that the absence of Argentine maestro Lionel Messi makes a difference, but insisted that the quality of players at Martino’s disposal makes that discrepancy negligible.
“We want to be second in the group but even without Messi they have dropped very few points in both the league and the Champions League. He’s a very important player who doesn’t only score but also gives a lot of assists, but even without Messi they have a lot of great players.”
What will concern De Boer more is the absences in his own squad. Captain Siem de Jong and striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson are both injured and ruled out for the game, while Bojan is still not ready to return to the first-team.
A fit De Jong and Sigthorsson would definitely have featured in the starting XI in the Amsterdam ArenA. The young players the coach drafted in to fill those roles might have made the difference on Saturday against Heracles, but it’s a different task when it comes to facing a behemoth such as Barcelona. However, the fearlessness of young players like Klaassen, Blind and Veltman could prove to be an asset, more than inexperience can be a hindrance.
A mystery remains as to who De Boer will choose to spearhead the attack in the ArenA this evening. Danny Hoesen is the likely candidate after he took up the number nine role at the weekend, scoring within the first two minutes. However, the coach has hinted that young midfielder Klaassen and Lasse Schone are also candidates.
Klaassen is a promising midfielder of a similar mould to De Jong, who started up front in the 1-0 win over Celtic and has shown that he can play as a striker for Jong Oranje recently. Schone, on the other hand, is a very versatile and skilful player who has made the difference for Ajax on several occasions this season.
The midfield will likely consist of Daley Blind in the number six role with Serero and Klaassen, or perhaps the returning Lerin Duarte, who was a threat when these sides met in Camp Nou.
This is a team set up to try and make quick passes around the middle of the park with a view to finding space in between their opponents’ midfielders and defenders. The midfield is one which can retain possession, but has a lot of pace to it too. But while Ajax are used to enjoying the majority of time on the ball, particularly in their own stadium, it is most likely they will be forced back by a team with a similar philosophy embodied by a better calibre of player.
Assuming it is Hoesen who starts as the main striker, likely supported by Schone and Viktor Fischer on the wings, there will be a great deal of movement and pace in attack for Ajax, making it difficult for Pique and Mascherano to mark Hoesen and Klaassen.
Anything other than defeat for the Amsterdammers is considered a long shot by anyone who isn’t the most one-eyed Ajax fan, but De Boer will ensure his players do everything they can to trouble the Spanish champions and boost their chances of remaining in the Champions League beyond the winter break.
Regardless of the result in the Dutch capital tomorrow, what happens in Glasgow is equally important. Wins for both Barcelona and Milan sees those two teams progress to the next round. If Celtic can hold the Italian side, though, it gives Ajax a fighting chance heading into the final game at San Siro on the 11th of December.