Johan Cruijff Schaal Preview: PEC Zwolle – Ajax

Every night throughout the summer, Frank de Boer was able to drift into sleep, content in the knowledge that he was a history maker. A legend. A hero. The 44-year-old is the only coach to ever have won four consecutive Eredivisie titles with Ajax and has shown to have the makings of a special manager throughout his first job in top flight football.

However, as he entered his deep sleep, the former Netherlands, Ajax and Barcelona player would wake up screaming and in a cold sweat. For a football coach, they were the equivalent of  a soldier having flashbacks to the heat of the battle.  It wasn’t images of bullets, bombs and death appearing in the mind of De Boer, but the recollection of Guyon Fernandez, Ryan Thomas and Kamohelo Mokotjo destroying his team.

The KNVB Beker is the only domestic title which eludes De Boer’s grasp as Ajax boss and they seemed destined to take it home just three minutes into the final clash against the relatively teeny, tiny PEC Zwolle. Ricardo van Rhijn had smashed the capital club into the lead from distance with a glorious strike and it seemed Ajax would stroll to victory. However, after massive disruption brought on by Amsterdammers throwing flares and fireworks onto the pitch (near their own goalkeeper), Zwolle emerged motivated and determined and completely wiped out the supposed Sons of the Gods. Thomas, Mokotjo and Fernandez were unbelievable. The game ended 5-1, a joint highest loss for Frank de Boer in his professional managerial career (4-0 vs PSV and Barcelona). In short, everything went exactly the way Zwolle wanted it. It was, essentially, the performance of a lifetime.

Or was it? On Sunday, the two teams meet again as they open the domestic season in the Johan Cruijff Schaal and while victory, no matter how big, for Ajax won’t compensate for that loss in Rotterdam earlier this year, it might at least allow De Boer to get a good night’s sleep. Compared to the last few seasons the Ajax team has remained largely stable for now. In Siem de Jong and Christian Poulsen experienced heads have left but both were eclipsed last term by the likes of Davy Klaassen and Daley Blind, while Bojan hardly added anything to the side in 2013/14, the same goes for expected departures of Sigthorsson and Vermeer.

In Arkadiusz Milik (on loan from Leverkusen with an option to buy), Richairo Zivkovic and Robert Muric, Frank de Boer has more attacking options at his disposal, while Nick Viergever has been attracted as a deputy left back, centre back and defensive midfielder. With a 0-1 win over Benfica being the most recent result for the Amsterdam club and with prospects like Ricardo Kishna and Lucas Andersen looking increasingly likely to make the step up Frank de Boer will fel confident he can finally put the 5-1 that hounded him in his nightmares to bed.

For Zwolle, another cup win over Ajax, this time in the lion’s den – the Amsterdam ArenA, will boost their growing reputation as they look to develop even further in the Eredivisie. But it won’t be an easy task for former Zwolle player and current manager Ron Jans. The Cup win was an absolute high and one that will be savoured for decades to come in the capital of Overijssel, but it also papered over the cracks that PEC Zwolle showed in the league in 2014. While a 10th place in itself looks acceptable, it is a worrying trend for the Blauwvingers that they managed only one league win less in August 2013 (4) as they did in the rest of the season (5). With fulcrum Mateusz Klich returning to Wolfsburg and imposing centre back Darryl Lachman joining FC Twente, the spine of PEC Zwolle has taken a significant blow already and the topscorers of last season, Fred Benson and Guyon Fernandez, have been let go. Ajax are also looking to prise away goalkeeper Diederik Boer and midfield general Kamohelo Mokotjo but have so far been resisted in their efforts.

It’s not all doom and gloom for PEC. They will play in the Europa League for the first time ever this season and PEC Zwolle have been quite busy on the transfer front so far. A lot of talented youngsters have been brought in with attacker Dimitrios Ferfelis (Werder Bremen) and Boy de Jong (Feyenoord) likely to make the biggest impacts. Furthermore, Ben Rienstra will be a welcome addition too  ; the versatile player has joined from local rivals Heracles Almelo and is comfortable in the centre of defence as well as in midfield.

Ron Jans is an experienced coach having managed FC Groningen, sc Heerenveen and (briefly) Standard Liège before but the cup win with PEC Zwolle was his first silverware as a manager. Whereas the last meeting between PEC and Ajax is the stuff the nightmares of Frank de Boer are made of, Ron Jans has been living the dream for the last few months. The Johan Cruijff Schaal is the last relic of that Cup win domestically and PEC Zwolle will be eager to do the double over the Eredivisie’s biggest club.

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