Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
Where were you in 2004? Shrek 2 busted the block, George W Bush was re-elected, Arsenal completed their Invincible season and Olympics-hosting Greece lifted the European Championships with their biggest victory since the Battle of Troy. And Ajax won the Eredivisie title for the last time… until now.
After seven years, nine managers, £96m spent on players and £160m worth of talent sold, they’ve finally done it. And in the fourth and final of this season's clashes with FC Twente, they won the one Johan Cruyff described as the one that “really matters”: the ‘Kampioenswedstrijd’ [championship game].
Ajax took the title in front of a full house in a deserved 3-1 victory with Siem de Jong grabbing a brace – and in the process stepping from the shadow of his younger brother Luuk, the FC Twente striker who has been grabbing all the glory of late.
This is the one Ajax have been waiting for, title No.30 – after the game the players were given shirts which adorned three stars above the crest – and it's all the more remarkable because it came in a season which often felt like nothing would happen. But it did.
Ajax: Lanskampioen once again
Ajax have top-scored in four of the seven seasons since their last title win but only came close to glory on two occasions, losing last year by a point and in 2007 by a solitary goal. It was as if the football gods had mocked them by bringing the nectar they crave so close to their lips but pulling it away before they could quench their thirst.
This season started with promise on the back of a spectacular run in the last. Ajax were pre-season favourites – and expectations were bolstered by qualification for the Champions League groups at the expense of PAOK and Dynamo Kyiv – but they hit a sticky patch and never looked like regaining their composure.
The lacklustre performances under Martin Jol and the external pressures that followed led to his resignation halfway through the season; he was replaced by Frank de Boer, the legendary ex-player's career coming full-circle back to Ajax.
De Boer, who turned 41 on Sunday, said the title victory made for the best birthday of his life – and that Ajax are back where they belong. “It's fantastic for the supporters,” he said. “They've waited so long for this. We're the most beautiful club in Holland. We're the biggest club so it's nice to win this title. But we couldn't predict the outcome of this match, or the championship. Football can be so random. But things fell in our favour."
Before the game Christian Eriksen – the pivotal playmaker named by De Boer as the club's talent of the season – said that if Ajax were to overcome any psychological advantage the Tukkers had, then they needed to come out fighting. And that's exactly what they did.
Though Twente could have taken the lead in the first 30 seconds, it was Ajax who took the lead in the 23rd minute when Siem de Jong met a cross from Gregory van der Wiel and unleashed a superbly taken shot from a difficult angle that gave Twente goalkeeper Nikolay Mihaylov no chance.
Straight from the restart Ajax doubled their lead when their former player Denny Landzaat headed the ball into his own net attempting to clear another Van der Wiel cross. Twente pulled a goal back through Theo Janssen's curling shot from 20 yards, but De Jong scored again – his tenth league goal of the season – in the 78th to wrap up the win and the title.
"Pile-on!" The boys get happy
DE BOER NECESSITIESAlthough he has only been in club management for five months, De Boer has never been an opportunist – winning the league as coach by being at the right place and right time. Even as a player, he was a typical graduate from the Ajax school of hard knocks: there was always an answer for everything on the pitch. He made his first-team debut in 1988 and quickly established himself in the side as one of the more reliable left-backs around.
Known to be frugal off the field, he was beneficial to his friends on it. Famed for his exemplary distribution of the ball, be it short or long (he it was who set up Dennis Bergkamp’s goal against Argentina at France 98), he was also noted for his versatility across the backline and most famously his brilliant free-kicks.
Even more than his twin Ronald, he was a core component of Louis van Gaal's all-conquering early 90s side; establishing himself as an international via three Euros and two World Cups, he retired with a record number of caps, later surpassed only by everlasting former Ajax team-mate Edwin van der Sar.
His subsequent coaching work with Ajax youngsters didn't go unnoticed; "Mr. Ajax" himself, Sjaak Swart, praised his work and complimented his commitment to the Ajax model and style – a belief system that allows De Boer to name-drop the biggest comparison of all.
“When it comes to playing football, movement on the field and attacking, I am close to Johan Cruyff’s philosophy,” De Boer explains. “I like the 4-3-3 formation; I know you need the right players for that, but if you want to find them, then you will.”
More than anything, his ideological belief in Ajax resonated to his players, reminding them at all times who they were playing for and the importance of doing so. De Boer wasn't above hands-on training either, often giving free-kick master-classes.
Frank advice: Ajax learn from experience
And so De Boer becomes only the third former Ajax player to guide the same club to the title, joining Ronald Koeman and Rinus Michels. They too had joined mid-season and turned things round; Koeman replaced Co Adriaanse in 2001 and immediately marched to the league and cup double, while Michels helped Ajax avoid relegation in 1965 before kickstarting a revolution that shook Europe.
De Boer is far from a Michels type coach, but his back to basics approach was the catalyst for Ajax’s unexpected run – they won all their last six games, making it 13 wins from 17 league games under the new coach – and for that he must be commended, quite apart from keeping boardroom squabbles away from the performances.
IT'S ALL IN THE MINDWhile Ajax won six out of six after the last international break, Twente and PSV began to drop silly points. Their European excursions and humiliations – at the hands of Villarreal and Benfica respectively – may have been significant but can't excuse the players' apparent attitude.
Twente winger Nacer Chadli is unquestionably the signing of the season, but he said before the penultimate weekend of fixtures that the amount of games he’s played had caught up with him. Before the Cup final De Boer noted that Twente have a bigger, more experienced squad, showing a nice appreciation of mind games even if his side didn’t get the job done in Rotterdam. Ajax simply seemed to want the win more.
Players who looked down and out under Jol now look completely different, but Ajax will now enter a summer of uncertainty as one or two from the first team could be leaving for pastures new. De Boer as much as admitted that his captain and goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg is as good as gone, while key right-back Gregory van der Wiel and versatile defender Jan Vertonghen seem to be leaving – although Van der Wiel hinted he may stay for another season and some say Vertonghen has also pledged he same to De Boer.
Certainly after the Twente game De Boer stated he’ll do his utmost to not lose players, “Hopefully we keep this group of players together as much as possible. It gives us a chance of keeping the real top players, we're now playing football in the Champions League – so they might choose to stay and not go to Schalke,” a knowing reference to the German side strongly linked with Stekelenburg.
Ajax have nonetheless cleared out nine players including Timothée Atouba, Evander Sno and Suk Hyun-Jun; as of now their futures remains unclear.
Let's stay together? Vertonghen and Stekelenburg
For his part, Twente manager Michel Preud'homme will not consider the season a wipeout. Despite losing the one game of importance there’s still a lot of positives to take. “Ajax put us under pressure and we never managed to free ourselves," he said after the game.
"We're disappointed but the season overall was splendid. After winning the title last season, we had to re-construct a completely new team. Twente win the cup, reach the Europa League quarter-finals and finish second in the league: all things considered, it's a great season."
BACK TO THE FUTUREAt least Twente did manage to hold on to second: their last-day loss meant that PSV could leapfrog them for that final Champions League spot. Typically, the Eindhoven side failed, with a goalless draw at Groningen. Fred Rutten’s men have ended the season woefully and after three potless seasons – two under Rutten – they may fancy a change of direction.
On the other hand, Twente is a growing force – so much so that even Cruyff has said the balance of power is beginning to move away from the traditional powerhouses – but just as with those big teams, Twente's task is now keeping hold of the key players.
The biggest question mark is the future of Theo Janssen, the 2011 Dutch Footballer of the Year. On more than one occasion he has hinted at a possible return to his boyhood club Vitesse, and although Twente can offer him the chance of Champions League football, so can Ajax – and De Boer has confirmed the champions' interest.
In the spotlight: Janssen's an obvious target
Also on Ajax's radar is AZ Alkmaar’s Icelandic striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, believed to be close to signing. However, outgoing CEO Rik van den Boog has reiterated that Ajax won’t be splashing the cash, continuing the tradition of prioritising youth players – a group De Boer knows well from his time in charge of Jong Ajax.
Accordingly, if Stekelenburg does leave Ajax may promote Kenneth Vermeer; Van der Wiel might be replaced by promising Finn Henri Toivomäki – personally recommended by former great Jari Litmanen – while Danish teen Nicolai Boilesen looks to be an able long-term successor to Vertonghen when the Belgian international moves on.
For now, the players celebrated the title (and qualification for the Champions League group stages) with more than 100,000 fans packing the Museumplein. There was even a ‘Sergio Ramos’ moment when Stekelenburg, of all people, dropped the trophy; in his defence, he and vice-captain Vertonghen saw the tram wires late. De Boer called the subsequent dent on the shield “a little symbol for the season”.
De Boer can now contemplate taking the club to heights he never thought possible. With Cruyff returning in a dual role as a member of the newly-formed supervisory board and in the management, the club's future looks a lot brighter than it did last December – or indeed at any time since those far-off days of 2004.
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