Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
As the clock struck 80 minutes in Wednesday evening’s Champions League tie at the Amsterdam Arena, Ajax coach Frank de Boer will have tensed up.
After all, it was only a few days since he had seen his side throw away a 3-1 lead in the final ten minutes of their league fixture at Heracles.
Fortunately for De Boer and the Dutch champions, history didn’t repeat itself, as Ajax held on to beat Manchester City and add another chapter to their illustrious European history.
Although it’s still unlikely they will make the knockout stages of the Champions League, they’ve given themselves a much-needed confidence boost ahead of the upcoming ‘Klassieker’ at Feyenoord on Sunday.
It was a result nobody could have envisaged, especially after City went a goal ahead thanks to Samir Nasri's 22nd minute strike.
“When we went behind, it was because we did not pay enough attention, and we got punished for that,” De Boer said post-match. “After the goal we recovered very well and equalised right before the break. Today we have seen a fairly good Ajax team and we played good football in certain phases.”
De Boer and coaches set high standards at the Amsterdam ArenA
Roberto Mancini afterwards paid tribute, exclaiming that Ajax were at times “awesome,” which brought back memories of a similar eulogy uttered by Jorge Valdano after his Real Madrid side were brushed away by Louis van Gaal’s swashbuckling outfit of the mid 1990s.
It’s easy to get carried away, but to put the win into some perspective, Ajax’s starting eleven – laced with seven De Toekomst graduates – cost less than €5M to assemble “financial dwarfs” compared to their opponents wrote Haarlems Dagblad.
Whereas in England the post-mortem surrounds Mancini’s tactics, De Boer wasn’t having any of it. “I get a bit tired of people saying it was because of the opponent [playing badly].” That feeling was echoed by both the Dutch press and the Ajax players.
“This performance was no incident. Ajax earned the victory themselves,” stated Algemeen Dagblad.
“[City] seemed like they were less motivated,” winger Tobias Sana said. “But that was because of us! We played the game Frank de Boer wants.”
The manner in which such a youthful and inexperienced side were able to produce such an imperious performance against one of Europe’s elite teams - let alone secure victory - will no doubt restore confidence in Johan Cruyff’s vision.
De Boer followed it, as Algemeen Dagblad reminded its readers, by adopting Cruyff’s "who is not strong, be smart” mantra, starting Christian Eriksen – a natural number 10 – as a deep-lying forward. “The Messi role” as De Telegraaf described it.
Christian Eriksen impressed in 'the Messi role' against City
He may not have been as wondrous as usual, but the Dane’s continual willingness to drop into midfield, rotating with Siem de Jong, allowed Ajax to play their famed circulation football. “We knew beforehand we could get space between the lines,” Eriksen said, adding that facing Manchester City was “better for our playing philosophy” than coming up against Real Madrid.
The resoluteness and fighting spirit shown by battling back having fallen behind against the run of play was a stark contrast to events of recent weeks.
“We played dominant football and they did not have an answer,” De Boer enthused.
After their meltdown against Heracles, Ajax were accused of “struggling with immaturity” by the Dutch media.
They showed the intestinal fortitude to not wilt after Samir Nasri put the English champions in front. “They scored with their first chance,” De Jong lamented. “Luckily we equalised just before the break.”
It was a real captain’s goal and one that silenced a few naysayers who had started to call for him to be dropped. Ricardo van Rhijn, who played his part in the goal, an exquisitely timed cross for De Jong, felt it was a deserved victory. “We showed that we can create chances but importantly we can finish.”
His defensive partner Niklas Moisander gave the Amsterdammers a surprise lead - in more ways than one. “It was so unexpected I didn’t know how to celebrate,” he explained. “I’ve now scored against Real Madrid and Manchester City, unbelievable.”
Niklas Moisander (middle) celebrates giving Ajax the lead over City
If Ajax were in dreamland at 2-1, things got even better a few moments later, thanks to Eriksen. “There was an element of luck in my goal, but you have to make your own luck in matches,” said Eriksen - another player under some pressure heading into the game. “When we went 3-1 up I have to admit that it went through my head we were also 3-1 ahead at the weekend, but I think we all felt that we wouldn't let that happen again.”
The doubts raised over the weekend subsided as their stunning victory was enthusiastically greeted by the local press. “Ajax did it” read Algemeen Dagblad. “So it’s possible after all to beat a superpower […] a royal triumph for Cruyff and kindred, the guardians of pure football.”
The significance of the win beyond three points wasn’t lost on De Telegraaf, who proclaimed that; “The name Ajax can be pronounced with respect in Europe again.”
De Boer demanded his students quickly learn from their errors. Not one player left the field without giving their utmost. “I am proud of them.”
From one big game to the next, Sunday will be the 166th Klassieker, and one as eagerly anticipated as any other. Feyenoord also showcased mental strength in their last outing, recovering from a 2-0 deficit to beat VVV 3-2, their first win in Venlo since 1991.
It wasn’t a performance that sat comfortably with Feyenoord coach Ronald Koeman, who knows exactly what lies ahead. “I was ashamed. I have never experienced such a performance with this group.”
Koeman watched Ajax’s remarkable evening first-hand and couldn’t have been more impressed, but remained cautiously confident. After all, the game will be at De Kuip and the last meeting there his side nullified Ajax’s free flowing football.
As the old saying goes ‘one swallow doesn’t make a summer’ - as impressive as De Boer’s side were against City, if they can’t maintain that standard in Rotterdam, it could get tricky. But if they can, with Feyenoord feeding off the partisan crowd (away fans are still prohibited), it promises to be yet another spectacle.
Never one to shirk from speaking his mind, PSV Eindhoven striker Dries Mertens described his side’s late
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