AZ and Ajax prepare for an enticing Johan Cruijff Schaal

Frank de Boer will be the second person ever to win the Johan Cruijff Schaal as a player and coach, should his side emerge victorious from tonight’s match against AZ. The former Ajax defender wishes to follow in the footsteps of another club legend, Danny Blind, who won it twice as a player and then as manager in 2005. De Boer, on the other hand, won it in 1993 (alongside Blind) and then in 1995, but his two previous attempts as coach have ended in defeat, despite the match taking place in Ajax’s home stadium.

After lifting the league title for the first time under De Boer, Ajax faced Twente in the Dutch Supercup, losing 2-1 to Co Adriaanse’s side. The following year, after winning another Eredivisie title, De Boer’s team faced fierce rivals PSV, losing 4-2 to the Eindhoven giants.

Photo: KNVB

The Amsterdam powerhouse appear to be in a better position to lift the trophy this summer than they have in each of their last two attempts. Ajax haven’t lost a single key player this summer, with Siem de Jong, Toby Alderweireld and Christian Eriksen all still in the side. They are a year older and the team has developed even further since the defeat to PSV last year. Furthermore, they have even added to the squad with Barcelona loanee Bojan Krkic coming into the side and looking like a great acquisition based on his friendly appearances.

De Boer has great confidence in his team and the way in which they are developing. “We feel that we are a lot further on than last year,” he told reporters. “The players can play their positions almost in their dreams.”

The Ajax coach is missing the injured winger Derk Boerrigter, while he has not included new central defender Mike van der Hoorn in the team. Niklas Moisander is an uncertainty, but he could still make the starting XI.

AZ are more than formidable opponents for this competition. The Alkmaar side dismantled last season’s victors and Eredivisie runners-up PSV in the KNVB Beker Final to book their place in this game. They had a terrible 2012-13 season in terms of their league performances, but they were deserved Dutch Cup winners, having defeated Ajax in the Amsterdam Arena before beating PSV in De Kuip.

Gertjan Verbeek has lost his two star players from last season, striker Jozy Altidore (Sunderland) and attacking midfielder and wonderkid Adam Maher (PSV), but the signings he has made suggest AZ will be a stronger outfit in this campaign. The recruitment of Jan Wuytens, Jeffrey Gouweleeuw and Nemanja Gudelj boost the team immensely. Centre-backs Wuytens and Gouweleeuw add a lot of strength to the backline, which conceded 54 goals as they finished in tenth place last season, compared to the 35 they let in throughout the previous year on their way to fourth place. Gudelj, on the other hand, is a player who can play as a defensive, central or attacking midfielder, but will most likely slot into the centre alongside Markus Henriksen whilst Willie Overtoom fills the void left by Maher.

Aron Johannsson is expected to be the first-choice forward following the departure of Altidore, who scored 23 Eredivisie goals last season. The American-Icelandic striker won’t be expected to score as many goals as the new Sunderland striker, but his link up play with those around him means the goals will be spread out around the team.

Photo: van de Vuurst

However, it is because of the change to the style of the team that AZ coach Verbeek believes Ajax are favourites. Speaking to the media in the pre-match press conference, he said: “For us, the best players have left. In losing Adam Maher and Jozy Altidore, we have lost many goals and assists.

“Their replacements are guys with potential, they have already proven that. However, they are completely different types of players than we already had.

“In addition, our backline is completely different, so we are wondering where we are today.”

“I think Ajax are the favourites to win the Johan Cruijff Shield,” Verbeek added. “They are the champions and saw no key players leave. They even added new players.”

Interestingly, AZ have won this competition more recently than today’s opponents and they hold more former champions of it than Ajax. Their victory in 2009 under Ronald Koeman came with a 5-1 thrashing of Heerenveen, while Ajax last won it in 2007. Moisander is the only Ajax player to have lifted this trophy before – when he won it with AZ. Maarten Martens remains the only AZ player to have played in that victory over Heerenveen, while Steven Berghuis was a champion with Twente and Dirk Marcellis has a winners’ medal from his 2008 victory with PSV over Feyenoord.

This evening’s fixture is about two teams in very different periods of their development. AZ are starting a new life without Maher and Altidore, one which looks prosperous, but it could have a stuttering start, but a victory over the league champions will make that start go a lot smoother. Ajax, however, finished last season in spectacular fashion and, given the calibre of this season’s rivals, it could be crucial for De Boer’s side that they get the new campaign off to a good start too. And what better way to kick things off by lifting the trophy named after the greatest player ever to wear their colours?

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