A pantheon of European champions look poised to battle their way to Lisbon, where the 2014 UEFA Champions League title awaits. After a punishing defeat to FC Bayern Munich in the semi-finals of last year’s edition, FC Barcelona will attempt to bring the trophy back to Catalunya. Being drawn in a difficult group of all former European Cup champions, the Catalans will have a treacherous autumn, facing off against the likes of AFC Ajax, AC Milan, and Celtic FC. Each week, in the lead off to the kick-off of the group stage, totalBarça will profile one member of Group H in the hopes of better understanding the enemy. Maria Ines, writing from South America, continues the series this week with a look at Dutch opponents, AFC Ajax.
This season’s Champions League will see these two historic sides reunited for the first time in many years. What to expect?
Barça and Ajax have strong ties that go back decades. In recent times, Ajax has been busy recovering the roots of its success in the 90’s, taking pep Guardiola’s Barcelona as a role model, and recovering what was the true reason of that late success: their ‘cantera’, under exploited and somewhat forgotten in the recent past. This effort originates from a restructured managerial team, which includes Denis Bergkamp and Wim Jonk at the directive board, Jaap Stamp and Marc Overmars as part of the coaching staff, not to mention the assistance of Johan Cruyff as an advisor.
The club has stopped hiring coaches based on crisis and trusted one man: Frank de Boer, historic Ajax defender. De Boer, a former Barca player, has taken this young team to another level with a record three consecutive Eredivisie titles under his belt. Heavily influenced by Van Gaal’s tactics (3-4-3 formation) de Boer also aims to introduce Cruyff’s principles (simple passing game). The new manager is also using Guardiola as one of his influences, and openly admits to borrowing the pressure and fast passing that were qualities of Pep’s best squads.
Ajax knows that they are still far from competing against bigger european sides but they wait patiently to claim their place in Europe again. They know they can’t retain their stars for long (Luis Suarez, and recently Christian Ericksen, off to Tottenham most recently) but somehow, they’re building a consistent team with a solid idea of how to play football. That might be the difference between them and previous Ajax sides: their football won’t suffer as much as in previous seasons, when a star leaves the team.
Composed mostly from young players, this Ajax side has one of its brightest stars in Viktor Fischer, an elegant danish left wing/midfield who impressed a year ago at the Next Gen Series. At only 18, he already has been trusted with a place in the first XI. The individual training routine, that Frank de Boer has impossed following one of Louis Van Gaal’s recipes, is meant to give younger players a better base to have a consistent performance.
It’s still early to say this historic side will reach past glories again. Despite what we might see in a few days, when we face them, Ajax is rebuilding its history. If a team does that in the sustainable way (I mean, growing players instead of buying them) I would count on them to be successful in Europe in a few years.