Ajax look lost in an alien setting

Ian Ridley finds a strained welcome at the Amsterdam ArenA, where Rangers boldly go searching for a win tonight
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The Independent Online
It homes into view amid farmland and aside office blocks south- east of the city and for a moment you really think they might have landed. The new Amsterdam ArenA, host to Rangers in the Champions' League tonight, is indeed a futuristic mothership of a venue, but at the moment for Ajax, their opponents and occupants of this interplanetary craft, it is far from dome, sweet home.

This visitor yesterday began to feel like the increasingly frustrated Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Amid building workers still topping off (and popping off for a ciggie), security staff politely but firmly defied attempts to reach nerve centre - the 51,000- seat stadium itself and a view of the pitch. All enquiries were referred to offices on the fourth floor of a tower block 400 bleak and windswept yards away.

Ah, said a knowing local, that will be because they have taken so much criticism. Ajax supporters, used to the intensity of the old 20,000-capacity De Meer, are having trouble adapting to the less atmospheric ArenA (probably spelt so because it offers neat opportunities for logo designers) while the team are struggling to perform on a pitch still bedding in. Like themselves, in fact.

For all that, the ArenA is a remarkable looking construction, its most innovative feature a retractable roof - in 30 minutes, is the claim - that permits indoor concerts and the like. Car parking takes up the first two floors, with the pitch laid out on the third. Naturally, food outlets and other chances to spend money are copious.

That said, season ticket prices are remarkably cheap, with a seat on the half-way line at about pounds 250 for the year. With a lowest price of pounds 100, it puts the Premiership to shame. Costing pounds 70m, the stadium has taken three years to complete and access via motorways and trains is excellent. It is about 12 kilometres from the centre of Amsterdam and only 30 from Utrecht, but then everything in this delightfully open and manageable country seems to be about 30 kilometres from Utrecht.

The stadium was opened two months ago with Ajax, only minor shareholders though the regular attraction, losing 3-0 to Milan as a sign of things to come. In six competitive games since, the pitch has cut up too easily and turf is relaid almost daily.

The biggest critic has been the Ajax coach, Louis van Gaal, whose passing team needs a level, rather than divot-pocked, playing surface. "Too soft underneath," said the well-known Agronomist of Old Amsterdam.

"In the old place you could smell football everywhere you went. You can't here," said Van Gaal, who has announced his possibly related resignation from the club at the end of the season. And, from the outside yesterday, you knew what he meant.

Actually, Ajax's more significant dilemmas have been more to do with the new problems presented by the Bosman ruling and the age-old one of injury. Last summer Finidi George, Nwankwo Kanu - now sadly out of the game with a heart problem - Edgar Davids and Michael Reiziger departed as the team which won the European Cup last year and was beaten by Juventus in this year's final drifted apart.

To those losses, add long-term injuries to Patrick Kluivert, Danny Blind and Peter Hoekstra and a shorter-term calf strain to Jari Litmanen, which prevents his appearance tonight, and the reasons for Ajax's fall from grace become apparent.

They are an unheard of sixth in the Dutch League, seven points behind the leaders, Feyenoord, after 10 games. In the Champions' League, a business as usual 1-0 win in Auxerre was followed by a 0-1 defeat in the ArenA by Grasshopper of Zurich, fast becoming this season's surprise packet. Kluivert's replacement, the Nigerian Tijani Babangida, has yet to score a goal.

"They are still an impressive side," says the Rangers manager, Walter Smith. "I don't think they are in turmoil as some are suggesting." Perhaps not, but his team, who have lost both their matches to Grasshopper and Auxerre, could hardly have dared hope when the draw was made to find them in such disarray in what will be a make or break contest for the Scots.

Not that they themselves are untroubled by injury. The most worrying is the damaged hip of their goalkeeper Andy Goram, which will be tested this morning, while in attack they are looking thin. Smith may pair the German Jorge Albertz with Brian Laudrup.

Ally McCoist and Gordon Durie are ruled out and the Dutchman formerly with Ajax, Peter Van Vossen, is doubtful.

The two teams will barely resemble what they might be and the same can be said of the setting; yes, Jim, but is it football as we know it? Responding to a venue has always been part of playing in Europe and whichever side does so the better tonight will be crucial. We hope to bring you an internal report tomorrow.