The Ajax fame academy is back with a vengeance
Sunday 23 February 2003
As the thousands of visiting supporters at Highbury last Tuesday ran through their bilingual repertoire, taking in "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "You Only Sing When You're Winning", the one ditty they forgot was "Hello, Hello, Ajax Are Back". It would be worth practising before Wednesday's return game with Arsenal in the ArenA, and will remain a valid boast even if the result is less favourable than last week's equitable 1-1 draw. Dispirited as the Dutch club's followers may have become at times during four barren years at the turn of the century, last season's Double-winning renaissance under Ronald Koeman has been thrillingly confirmed in the current Champions' League campaign.
Having set out with the ambition of reaching the second stage if possible, the heirs to Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten and – yes – Dennis Bergkamp, find themselves sitting prettily alongside the more fancied Arsenal and Valencia at the head of the table, having drawn away to both, as well as beating Roma in Amsterdam. Just as importantly, that has been achieved in the best Ajax traditions; if Tuesday's light-blue strip was unusual, the technique and composure on the ball shown by young players mostly schooled in the club's own fame academy was excitingly familiar.
TIPS, the academy coaches insist on: technique, insight, personality, speed. Nothing was missing. The third quality was one that Koeman might have been concerned about in the absence of some of his more established performers, such as Jari Litmanen, the American John O'Brien, the Egyptian striker Mido and – probably the most talented of all – Rafael van der Vaart. Even Cristian Chivu, the 22-year-old Romanian whom Koeman has made captain and sweeper, admitted afterwards: "We were a little scared of Arsenal."
They need not have worried. After an alarming opening in which Ajax conceded the midfield to Patrick Vieira and a goal to Sylvain Wiltord, Koeman appeared to press a switch and bring about a sudden surge of confidence. Ashley Cole's defensive error in failing to cut out a long cross helped, but no more than the élan with which Nigel de Jong, 18, slipped past him to score a maiden goal.
Once those massed at the back felt secure enough to offer greater support in midfield, it was time to admire the ability of equally inexperienced talents like Steven Pienaar, 20, signed from the feeder club Ajax Cape Town; the Brazilian Maxwell, 21; and Jelle van Damme, 19, from Belgium.
United States, Egypt, Romania, Brazil, South Africa, Tunisia, Morocco – the net has to be cast wider than in the days when a Bergkamp or a Cruyff was signed up before puberty. Koeman admits this can cause problems with players not brought up the Ajax way, but the intention is still to catch them young and instil the right approach.
Normally that would include adhering to the 4-3-3 system with two wingers used by every age group throughout the club. One of the most impressive aspects of Tuesday's game was how Ajax adapted to something closer to 5-3-2, though by the end the youngsters were expressing regret that their standards had fallen away in the second half, when Arsenal had the better of the few scoring chances.
"It was a good result and a good first half, the second half less so," said Chivu, who first came into English consciousness with a goal for Romania against Kevin Keegan's tottering team at Euro 2000. "Now we hope you'll see in the ArenA two halves like you saw with the first half at Highbury. We just have to keep concentrating and kill all the counter- attacking they will try."
Arsenal will need Thierry Henry to be much sharper, and whoever partners Vieira in central midfield to offer far more than Gilberto Silva did. With a daunting visit to Valencia still to come, it is a critical fixture for them, whereas, as Chivu says, Ajax still have no great expectations: "This is the advantage of Ajax, that nobody is talking about winning the Champions' League. We hoped at the beginning to reach the second round, which we have. If we lose, nobody will decapitate us."
Sobering news for the English champions as they attempt to keep their heads in the bedlam of the ArenA is that most of the players missing last week are in contention to return. In addition, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the tall Swede who crossed England's path at the World Cup finals, believes he still has something to prove to Arsenal, who were among many clubs interested in signing him from Malmo two years ago. Having invited the temperamental striker to England on a scout's recommendation, Arsène Wenger was startled to be told bluntly, "I don't do trials", and that if he wanted to inspect the goods, he should take a look in Sweden, not at the Arsenal training ground.
"I was a little disappointed, thinking: 'What am I doing here?' " Ibrahimovic added. "I don't regret not doing the trial. Why should I go and train? It's like I'm worth nothing. I said no to the trial and went home and the next week Ajax bought me immediately. No problem. I've gone to Ajax and I'm very happy there. They paid a lot of money [£5m] for me, I've developed very well. I feel a very good player now. I've loved Ajax.
"I didn't play well [at Highbury]. I didn't feel well. Something was wrong. This is not Zlatan. But you can expect a lot from me in Amsterdam."
A hostile reception too from almost 50,000 home supporters. Albeit in English.
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