Ajax effect restores shine

Norman Fox says the Dutch are planning their own Patrick's day parade
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The Independent Online
OVER the years no European team has squandered so much potential on the field by such pernicious discord behind the scenes as Holland. But that seems to be changing with the help of Ajax, who now form the heart of the Dutch national side, and particularly a young striker, Patrick Kluivert, who could challenge Juninho as the outstanding player of his generation. Especially if Holland beat Ireland at Anfield on Wednesday and qualify for the European Championships.

It would be naive not to question whether the present Dutch side, who have struggled even to find the back-door route to the finals, have overcome internal feuding and inconsistency. Ruud Gullit, who has experienced years of dressing-room battles, believes there is a new harmony: "The team is pulling together now as Ajax or Holland."

Clues to the Dutch attitude, which is all-important, have to include the Ajax performance of a fortnight ago when they were supposed to prove that they were the best club team in the world. Six of them and a substitute also played in the 3-0 defeat of Norway, but facing the tough South American champions, Gremio, in the world club championship in Tokyo, Ajax were far from impressive. Had they won well, without the aid of a penalty shoot- out, they would have sent another worrying message to the Irish. As it was, they created doubt for themselves.

The much-hyped match in Tokyo was a huge disappointment and Kluivert was lost, overwhelmed by the Gremio defence and reduced to directing just one header on to the crossbar. The Irish should not be fooled. Kluivert is a young, natural and well-schooled striker: he can still make it his night at Anfield on Wednesday.

The Ajax coach, Louis Van Gaal, blamed the pitch in Tokyo for hampering his team's performance, but he also admitted that there were some familiar attitude problems. He does not believe they will appear in the national side this week. Ireland would be advised to think that the attitude and style of the team they meet will be nearer to that of the Ajax side who cruised past Ferencvaros 4-0 in the Champions' League last Wednesday.

Whatever their reputation for mutiny and disunity, when the Dutch want to be the best, the world knows about it. While Marc Overmars has been spectacular, Kluivert is capable of quickly forgetting Tokyo and reverting to the form that helped Ajax overwhelm Real Madrid.

Kluivert's best form is a sign of the standards likely to be set by the new generation of home-produced Dutch players. A student of the Ajax school of football, in May he condemned Milan to the comparative obscurity of this season's Uefa Cup by scoring the winning goal in the European Cup final in Vienna. At 18, he was the youngest player ever to score in the final.

He first appeared in the Dutch national squad for a match against the Czech Republic late last year, replacing Bergkamp, who was injured. He played for the last 20 minutes and looked composed and confident, but he thought different. "When you play your first match as an international you come on and believe you can change things, but by then it's sometimes too late," he said. The game ended goalless.

Some of the foreign players now based in England have identified the main problem in domestic football as being the emphasis placed on passing the ball rather than controlling it; Kluivert says that while ball skills are important, as far as he is concerned, the most important technique he gained from the Ajax school was the ability to concentrate for long periods.

"When you are young, you want to be involved all the time, but you are not, so you may not be thinking hard when you do get the ball." It was because Kluivert could think and play tactically, like a much older player, that Ajax did not buy the Brazilian Ronaldo. As a result Kluivert was promoted more quickly than Ajax would have liked.

Van Gaal, a former schoolteacher, says Kluivert had a lot to learn and still has. But if Holland do overcome Ireland this week, they are likely to be propelled from the verge of elimination to being among the favourites. Whether the new generation can agree not to let disagreement come in the way of potential, we shall see.