Champions League preview: Barcelona v Ajax
It’s a matchup between two teams who share a remarkable history and connections which begin at the very root and stretch to the first-teams. Barcelona and Ajax are two iconic clubs cut from the same cloth, but they find themselves poles apart in terms of success on the European stage since the turn of the millennium.
The Spanish champions remain among the aristocrats of the world and are always one of the favourites to win the most prestigious club competition in European football. They have a remarkable squad who have dominated the sport on an international level for years and will likely remain highly competitive for years to come. Ajax, on the other hand, have been absent from the very top level for a very long time. Previously a giant of the sport across the world, the red and whites have abated into one on just a domestic scale. With a youth system, which has produced some world class players throughout the decades, the Dutch side have become a selling club unable to benefit fully from the maestros they have created. After the nadir of seven years without an Eredivisie title, they are now moving forward all the time under current coach Frank de Boer, who has eschewed the policy of overpriced and average “outsiders” to take the club back to what made it great as he looks to restore Ajax to former glories. If even this cannot stem the tide against the modern day superclubs, at least he has brought back Ajax’s sense of identity and belonging. For that alone, he will be forever remembered.
Despite the evident gap between the two teams, the Ajax coach has insisted that his players must present themselves as their opponents’ equals as they head into this match. De Boer will tolerate nothing but professionalism from his players during their time in Barcelona. Order and maturity are a necessity under such a dignified coach who understands and embodies the elegance and opulence of the iconic club. Thus, the coach has demanded, that his charges ensure they do not show too much respect to the Catalans when it comes to their conduct on and off the field.
“The players will not take pictures in the Camp Nou,” insisted the Ajax boss. “It’s not a school trip. They can look at them on the internet.”
It’s no surprise to hear the former Barcelona and Ajax player assert to his players that they not cower to the Blaugrana. Having crashed out of the group stage in each of the last three appearances in this competition, De Boer is determined to take his team into the knockout stages. It was seen as somewhat of a relief for Ajax that they avoided Real Madrid in the group stage draw as they were pitted against them in three successive seasons. However, being drawn against the Spanish champions makes it a bittersweet escape, if a very romantic one.
Since replacing Martin Jol as coach in December 2010, De Boer has returned Ajax to its roots, very much inspired by the Totaalvoetbal of Michels, Kovács and Cruijff. His devotion to the system can only be revered. Attacking, attractive football is a footballing ideal, which has become cliché in recent years. However, with Ajax, and with De Boer, it’s an obligation. Never do the Godenzonen tailor their style to suit their opponents. Everything is geared towards asserting themselves as the dominant force, controlling the game and ensuring the ball stays in the opponents’ half of the pitch. Whether it’s against Real Madrid, Manchester City, VVV-Venlo or Willem II, the style and the attacking intent remain. And so it will be on Wednesday when they face Gerardo Martino’s side.
“I am still convinced that we have to play our own game,” De Boer said in his pre-match press conference. “Dominating play is quite tricky against Barcelona. But if we get to our own level then I will be satisfied. It’s most important that we live up to our standard. (Our) players need to perform out of their skin on occasions like this. These games are excellent for that.
“This game is a test to see how far behind Barcelona we are.”
It’s a brave call to set out to dominate against such a blatantly strong Barcelona team, but De Boer’s belief is so remarkably simple that, at face value, it seems more naïve than anything else: “If you lose, then lose the Ajax way.”
Only two teams managed to beat Barcelona in last season’s Champions League as they reached the semi-finals of the competition. Celtic’s magnificent display of discipline, strength and endurance in an ultra-defensive display earned them a surprising 2-1 win over Tito Vilanova’s side. Then, in the penultimate stage, eventual winners Bayern Munich dominated in both legs, scoring seven goals across both games in a footballing masterclass.
As the Amsterdammers are closer to the level of Neil Lennon’s men than they are of the Bundesliga and Champions League holders, many would expect Ajax to resort to more defensive tactics in order to hold the Blaugrana at a safe distance in an attempt to replicate the magnificent achievement of the Scottish champions. Unsurprisingly, the Ajax boss has completely ruled out that possibility.
“We’re not all of a sudden going to train or play like Celtic against Barca. We’ll try to remain true to our own system as much as possible, because that’s what we do best.
“The point is that we can press forward at times and try to force errors and then take advantage. Ajax can and must respect this opponent. But in doing so we’ll play our own game.”
The coach’s point was further reiterated by technical director Marc Overmars: “If we play defensively, it will not be of our own accord, it will be because Barcelona have pushed us back.”
It’s no surprise to see such ambition and brevity from the reigning Eredivisie champions. The current Ajax side is built only for such tactics. With full-backs Ricardo van Rhijn and Daley Blind always bombing forward and centre-backs Stefano Denswil and Niklas Moisander move the ball on from the back and often charge upfield themselves, even Ajax’s defence is attack-minded. As attacking “philosophies” are in vogue in football at this time, the uncompromising style of Ajax can only be admired, however, it does leave them frail at the back and they can be easily exploited with quick bursts forward.
The three-man midfield is one of great fluidity and versatility, with the likes of captain Siem de Jong, new signing Lerin Duarte, Lasse Schöne, Christian Poulsen and Thulani Serero all available, the pace and creativity in the middle of the park is of an abundance. The right blend between wingers Viktor Fischer and Barcelona loanee Bojan has yet to be found. The 19-year-old Denmark international had a fantastic maiden season in the first-team, but hasn’t opened the current campaign with the same momentum and electrifying performances. Bojan, on the other hand, is dealing with the frustration which has dogged his career ever since his time at Barcelona – he is being played out of position. Despite being a central forward, Bojan is being used as a right-winger for Ajax, just like at Roma and AC Milan previously. This results in the 23-year-old cutting inside, thus narrowing the play in a system of which width is a key component. There have been positives for Bojan and Fischer, however. The Spaniard has set up three league goals already, while Fischer has scored one from the left flank. Overall, their linkup with sole striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson has been decent so far this season, but the front three are capable of so much more than they have shown in the early part of term.
The Dutch powerhouse have had a typically indifferent start to the season, having picked up 11 points from a possible 18 in the league. As they enter into battle with the cream of European football, it is important that, as De Boer says, they play above themselves if they are to stand a chance. Since lifting their third consecutive league title, the aim of the team is to progress beyond the group stage of this competition. The draw hasn’t been favourable to them, but with luck and the general unpredictability of football, they cannot be ruled out altogether before a ball has been kicked.