Ajax emerge as the age's greatest team

Glenn Moore considers Van Gaal's side capable of surpassing the Cruyff vintage; CHAMPIONS' LEAGUE VERDICT: Dutch confirm their class while England's representa tive draws strength from a poor campaign
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Now the British have departed (contribution: one win, five dismissals and a punch-up) the Champions' League is distilled to an elite octet. That, at least, is the theory. In practice, Uefa, the governing body of European football, appears to have a problem in the quality control department. As the competition reaches the knock-out stage, there is one outstanding team, a contender, a pretender and five likely makeweights.

Ajax are the class act. The holders completed a European Cup record 17- match unbeaten run with their 4-0 dissection of Ferencvaros on Wednesday night, surpassing the achievement of their great forerunners, the Rinus Michels team of Johan Cruyff and Neeskens.

They were impressive enough last year, defeating Milan three times, including in the final. However, the retirement of Frank Rijkaard looked as if it would leave a significant void, especially as one potential replacement, Clarence Seedorf, moved on to Sampdoria.

Instead, the Dutch club have become, if anything, better. As well as winning five of six Champions' League matches they are unbeaten at home, winning 14 of 15 league games. Their domestic dominance is total. Only Feyenoord, in a cup game, beat them last year. World Soccer magazine's Dutch team of the season was an Ajax XI. This hegemony gives the lie to Rangers' complaints that they cannot prosper in Europe until they are stretched in Scotland.

While the defence remains as tight as ever (they have conceded seven goals all season) Louis van Gaal, the coach, has created a yet more expansive attacking style which has garnered 72 goals. They come from everywhere with a dozen different scorers. Patrick Kluivert, still only 19, is supported by Nigeria's Finidi George on one wing and the coveted Marc Overmars on the other. The Finn Jari Litmanen plays behind Kluivert and the De Boer twins, Frank and Ronald, chip in from all manner of places. When Kluivert is rested, another teenager, Nwanko Kanu, steps in. All the while Danny Blind, the side's current elder statemen, marshalls from the back.

Ajax's best performance this season was the one in Madrid when Real were flattered to lose 2-0. The match demonstrated the fluidity of Ajax's movement - and the gulf the Spanish champions need to bridge if they are to claim a seventh European crown. Real's pretensions will be severely tested by Juventus in the quarter-finals.

Like Madrid, the Italian champions have faltered in their domestic league, and they also lost at home in Europe, to Borussia Dortmund. If that form suggests their wins over Rangers said more about their opponents' weaknesses than Juventus's strengths - like Barcelona's dismantling of Manchester United last season - it is misleading. Juventus, unlike Barcelona, are a team in harmony with themselves. The Dortmund result came after they had already qualified and the disparity with their Serie A performances merely emphasises the priority placed on the European Cup.

Whoever wins will meet Spartak Moscow or Nantes in the semi-final. The Russians have impressed, but their side is unlikely to remain intact until March. Oleg Romantsev, the coach, has already stepped down, while Viktor Onopko is bound for Spain. Should Sergei Yuran, Yuri Nikiforov and others be lured elsewhere, they will struggle even to beat an ordinary Nantes side.

The other semi-final should be between Ajax and either Panathinaikos or Legia Warsaw. Neither prospect will frighten the Dutch. All of which underlines how hard it is to place this Ajax side in perspective. Last week they struggled to beat a 10-man Gremio to win the World Club Championship, only doing so on penalties. However, the pitch was awful, the players were tired and lacked motivation.

Afterwards, Van Gaal wisely resisted comparisons with the Cruyff generation, who were World Club champions in 1972. But he did add: "We remember that team as fantastic. Maybe in 20 years' time people will speak the same way about us."

It is increasingly likely. The Champions' League format, designed under pressure from giants such as Milan and Barcelona, has helped a club like Ajax most. The financial rewards have helped them resist offers for the likes of Overmars and, although Seedorf left, they replaced him with the Brazilian Marcio Santos.

And they will get better. With Santos injured, Blind, at 34, is the only player over 25 in the side. As BBC TV's Dreaming of Ajax programme illustrated, there are more young players emerging, the latest being the 19-year-old Nordin Wooter.

With a new stadium ready for next season, the club will at last have an arena to match its football, and another reason to persuade its best players to stay. The last great Ajax side was broken up when Barcelona bought Cruyff and Neeskens. This one is less dependent on a few individuals, and better equipped to retain its stars. They could be champions for years.

EUROPEAN CUP Quarter-finals First leg (6 March) Legia Warsaw v Panathinaikos; Nantes v Spartak Moscow; Real Madrid v Juventus; Borussia Dortmund v Ajax. Second leg: 20 March: Semi-finals: first leg, 3 April; second leg, 17 April - quarter-final 1 v quarter-final 4; quarter-final 2 v quarter-final 3. Final: 15 May (venue to be arranged).

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