There has been an air of veneration in the way that Sir Alex Ferguson has discussed the prospect of tonight's encounter with Ajax, a club he last discussed publicly in Gelsenkirchen last May when, with a Champions League semi-final against Schalke the pressing concern, he admitted to an "envy" of that continental elite who have captured more European cups than Manchester United.
Ajax, champions of Europe four times and of Holland 30 times, will always mean something to a manager with such an acute appreciation of football history, though Ferguson's statement last week that tonight's hosts were "not having a great time of it at the moment" did not begin to describe the current strife tearing at the ramparts of a club who took the nickname de Godenzonen – "the sons of God" – for a reason.
The club is in a state of almighty civil war, which had foundations in a newspaper column that Johan Cruyff, an immortal epitome of Ajax invincibility, wrote for De Telegraaf 16 months ago, headlined "This is not Ajax any more". They had just mustered a solitary shot on goal while escaping with a 2-0 Champions League defeat at Real Madrid and Cruyff reflected that the club, €22.7m in debt, was poorly managed in every department and in need of a new start.
For a time, his words were heeded. Coach Martin Jol was replaced by Frank de Boer, who duly collected Ajax's first Eredivisie title in seven years. Chief executive Rick van de Boog was dismissed, Cruyff joined a newly-formed board of commissioners and the 2011-12 season was viewed with feverish anticipation of another domestic title. Today, Ajax sit sixth and even Amsterdammers have lost the plot of the club's internal strife. The core of the problem is Cruyff's determination that the club must be rebuilt on his lines.
Officially brought back into the club last February, he hired Wim Jonk and Dennis Bergkamp (now De Boer's assistant) to rebuild the once legendary Ajax youth academy. He saw to it that the board of commissioners would reflect his modernising vision, with Edgar Davids, a management consultant, a sports lawyer and a media specialist joining him. It was when he set about recruiting a new director to oversee his plans that the problems started.
Cruyff was intent on Ling Tshen La, the one-time Ajax winger who appeared for the last 15 minutes of United's only other competitive match here – a 1-0 defeat in 1976. Ling even turned up unexpectedly to one board meeting with Cruyff but his CV was unconvincing, the notion was rejected and the club, coming under pressure from the Amsterdam Stock Exchange to make an appointment last November, made the fateful choice of Louis van Gaal instead.
He is a legend here too – the man credited with introducing the passing creed, from 1991, which took Ajax to two Champions' League finals by 1996, beating Fabio Capello's Milan in one of them. He inculcated Barcelona with the same principles that would become Pep Guardiola's inheritance. But Cruyff – who left the Nou Camp six years before van Gaal arrived – never forgave him for taking the job he felt should be his.
Such are the reasons why the Ajax board hired van Gaal without the knowledge of the 64-year-old Cruyff – a piece of subterfuge that has prompted bitter and unsavoury squabbles between leading members of the Ajax hierarchy. The ugliest of them alleges that Cruyff told Davids that he was "only on the board because he was black" – an allegation Cruyff has denied. Eventually, Cruyff went to an appeal court to block the appointment and succeeded, sending the club into meltdown. Last Thursday, the supervisory board who had appointed van Gaal collectively resigned.
The club's benefactors have looked on with mounting alarm. The second biggest shareholder has declared it is so disgruntled that selling its shares might be a future consideration, while the club's main equipment supplier, Adidas, and sponsor, Aegon NV, have also made their feelings felt. Van Gaal's favourite Dutch word when he made Ajax great again in the early 1990s was Collectief. He even interviewed prospective signings to see if they were collectivist enough for his side. But such a spirit seems a long way off now.
The consensus here is that Cruyff – whose part in the club's history renders him untouchable – will soon be back at the helm, perhaps with Ling. From a Dutch perspective, United's arrival was not meant to take place against a backdrop like this. "This is not Ajax any more" is as fitting a testament to the club now as it was when Cruyff first made that statement.
Two greats go head to head
Louis van Gaal
Did not win major trophy as player. Managerial spells at Ajax, Barcelona (twice), Netherlands, AZ Alkmaar and Bayern Munich brought him seven domestic titles, three cups, one European Cup and a Uefa Cup.
Enjoyed success as player and manager. Scored over 350 goals in 600 games with Ajax, Barcelona and Feyenoord. Lifted three European Cups, 10 titles and seven cups. Helped Netherlands to 1974 World Cup final. As manager led Ajax and Barça to combined total of one European Cup, two Cup Winners Cups, four titles and three cups.