Kluivert's late strike claims crown for Ajax

EUROPEAN CUP FINAL: Defending champions are dethroned by the precocious talent of Dutch masters
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The Independent Online
Ajax 1

Milan 0

In the end the kids needed a little bit of help from their elders, but only a little. A short, tapped pass from Frank Rijkaard was enough. Running on to it, five minutes from the end of last night's absorbing European Cup final, was Patrick Kluivert, 18 years old and already experienced enough to know the indignity of being superseded by a younger man - such is the precocity of Ajax's youth.

Last night Kluivert was reduced to being a second-choice substitute for Ajax, but when his chance came, he took it as coolly as a veteran, sliding the ball past Sebastiano Rossi for the game's only goal.

The combination of two Dutch generations - Rijkaard, 32, started with Ajax before winning this competition with Milan - thus earned Ajax a fourth victory in the competition. The other three came two decades ago in the golden era inspired by Johan Cruyff.

This win could herald a similar period of dominance. Ajax are probably the youngest team to win the European Cup - only Rijkaard, who now retires, and the 33-year-old Danny Blind - are over 26 years old. Although some players will surely be lured away, other prodigies wait in the wings.

Indeed, it was thought they were too young to win Europe's premier trophy, and for much of last night's match, that appeared to be so. Milan, although weakened by the loss of Dejan Savicevic who failed a late fitness test on a thigh injury, were the dominant force for an hour.

With Marcel Desailly blocking the middle and the midfield quick to cover on the flanks, Milan stifled Ajax's imagination and width. They then pushed their own full-backs up and, with Demetrio Albertini switching play with precise raking passes, threatened to score themselves.

Having taken 26 minutes to test Edwin Van der Sar - a low drive from Marco Simone - they then provoked a series of goalmouth scrambles. Christian Panucci, having headed wide, chipped just over from Paolo Maldini's cross. Just before the interval it seemed they would score. Simone fed Roberto Donadoni on the right and lost his marker before cracking a fierce volley, but Van der Sar parried.

On the bench Louis van Gaal, the Ajax manager, was going mad, earning a lecture from the referee. His team had had one chance, a header over from Frank de Boer. "I was angry because we had not played as we can," he said. But, he added, the half had given him hope. "When you are playing so well the whole season, then you give it away and you have the luck that Milan does not score - then you know you have a big chance to win."

Buoyed by that belief, Van Gaal took the initiative 10 minutes into the second half, bringing on Nwankwo Kanu, the Nigerian teenager who has been keeping Kluivert out of the side. He was soon joined by Kluivert, and Ajax pushed forward with fresh vigour and were unlucky not to gain a free-kick - possibly even a penalty - when Panucci checked Marc Overmars in the penalty area.

By now the game, which began poorly, had settled and there were little cameos of skill all over the park, from defenders as well as forwards. But real chances remained rare. Milan looked dangerous on the break but neither Simone nor Daniele Massaro possessed Savicevic's delicate touch in front of goal.

With extra time looming, there then emerged a player who did. A series of Ajax players worked the ball across the Milan box before it came to Rijkaard, who slipped it to Kluivert. As Franco Baresi attempted to wrest the ball from him, he guided it past Rossi with a maturity beyond his years.

Ajax (3-1-2-1-3): Van der Sar; Reiziger, Blind, F De Boer; Rijkaard; Seedorf (Kanu, 53), Davids; Litmanen (Kluivert, 68); George, R De Boer, Overmars.

Milan (4-4-2): Rossi; Panucci, Costacurta, Baresi, Maldini; Donadoni, Desailly, Albertini, Boban (Lentini, 85); Massaro (Eranio, 90), Simone.

Referee: I Craciunescu (Romania).