Barça begin the 2013/14 Uefa Champions League with a game against the legendary Amsterdamsche Football Club Ajax at Camp Nou tomorrow night (Wednesday 8.45 pm). With Jordi Alba joining Isaac Cuenca and Ibi Afellay on the injured list and Carles Puyol still not quite recoved, Tata Martino has named all 20 available players for the game.
The last game between Barça and Ajax was a friendly back in 2004 which Barça won 2-1 thanks to two goals from Samuel Eto’o. However, considering the tradition of the two clubs in European football it seems strange that this will be the first competitive meeting between them. There are numerous connections that link the clubs together that go back to the English coach Vic Buckingham who was in charge at Ajax from 1959 to 1961 and from 1964 to 1965 before coaching Barça from 1969 to 1971. However, it was the great Rinus Michels who coached Ajax from 1965 until 1971 and Barça from 1971-75 and 1976-78, who introduced the Total Football that would so influence the footballing philosophies of both clubs.
As Barça’s coach Michels was largely responsible for the signing of Ajax’s greatest ever player Johan Cruyff in 1973. Soon after retiring as a player Cruyff took over as coach at Ajax in 1985 until he moved back to Barcelona in 1988. The success of Cruyff’s Dream Team instilled an idea of how the game should be played that has survived at Barça to the present day. The desire to continue with the philosophy has been demonstrated by Barça signing other Ajax-men Louis Van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard as coach since Cruyff’s departure, and Cruyff’s influence was also involved in the decision to give Pep Guardiola the job in 2008.
Ajax are currently coached by Frank De Boer who also played for both clubs, but his squad seems a long way from the level of the Ajax that won three European Cups with Cruyff as the star player in the early 1970s or Van Gaal’s team that won the Champions League in 1995. Ajax have had many outstanding players besides Cruyff such as Johan Neeskens, Johnny Rep, Arie Haan, Frank Rijkaard, Marco Van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp and Clarence Seedorf to name a few. However, in recent years the Ajax school seems to have slowed down the conveyor belt of great players while it has become increasingly difficult for them to hold on to their talent. This drop in level is reflected by Ajax’s failure to get past the Champions League group stage since 2005/06.
Since De Boer took over as coach Ajax have won the last three leagues in The Netherlands but this season they have started slowly and are currently in fourth place after six games. The current squad is notable for its youth with eighteen of the twenty-three first-team players being aged 24 or under. The only player over 27 is the 33-year-old ex-Sevilla midfielder Cristian Poulsen. Of the youngsters the brightest prospect is undoubtedly the 19-year-old Viktor Fischer who scored twice in Ajax’s 0-3 win over Barça in last season’s NextGen series. Fischer ended the NextGen series as equal top scorer along with Barça’s Jean-Marie Dongou, both players with seven goals.
This season’s Champions League is notable for the number of favourites who are all starting the season with a new coach. Martino, so far, has got the results needed for Barça though there have been some doubts cast over the standard of football while the four goals conceded in the last two games have raised questions about the defence. However, considering the short preseason, especially of the Spanish and Brazilian international players, perhaps it is normal that we are not at 100%. The signs are relatively positive so we would be wise to be patient with our new coach.
Tomorrow’s game provides a good opportunity for Barça to gain a comfortable victory to build confidence. With both sides playing an open 4-3-3 system, an entertaining game seems assured. Ajax may not seem the threat that they once were, but we would do well to remember that they took four points off Manchester City in last season’s group stage. The game will also offer us an opportunity to see how loaned-out Bojan Krkic is getting on at Ajax in his latest adventure. I predict a high-scoring win for Barça.
Barça’s 20-man squad: Valdés, Pinto, Alves, Montoya, Piqué, Bartrá, Mascherano, Adriano, Song, Busquets, Dos Santos, Xavi, Sergi Roberto, Fabregas, Iniesta, Pedro, Messi, Alexis, Neymar, Tello.
Ajax’s 18-man squad: Vermeer, Cillesen, Van Rhijn, Moisander, Blind, Van der Hoorn, Boilesen, Denswil, Poulsen, Duarte, De Jong, Schone, Serero, Fischer, Sigthórsson, Bojan, Sana, Hoesen.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Adriano; Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas; Alexis, Messi, Neymar.
Ajax: Vermeer; Van Rhijn, Moisander, Denswil, Blind; Poulsen, Serero, Schöne; Bojan, Sigthórsson, Fischer.
Prediction: Barça 5 Ajax 2
Date: Wednesday 18 September 2013. Kick off: 8.45 pm local time.