Ajax come to life with win in Hamburg

November 28th, 2008 - 1:47 pm ICT by IANS  

AC MilanHamburg, Nov 28 (DPA) The concept of total football was nowhere to be seen, but 1-0 victory at SV Hamburg in the UEFA Cup was a sign that Ajax Amsterdam are coming back to life.The outcome of the UEFA Cup group match Thursday night assured the Dutch club of a place in the knockout stages, as a domestic and international slump could be nearing its end.

“The victory was very important. We haven’t had a lot of success in Europe lately,” said coach Marco van Basten.

“We have a very young team. The victory gives us confidence. It is great that we have the chance to hibernate in Europe.”

It didn’t matter that Ajax were gifted the winner. Second-half substitute Leonardo stormed into a terrible backpass from Hamburg captain David Jarolim and poked home on the rebound of his original shot, which had first hit the left and then the right post.

Hamburg has been a good hunting ground for van Basten and Ajax. Van Basten scored a late 2-1 winner over hosts Germany in the 1988 Euro semi-finals there.

Ajax won a UEFA Cup match 1-0 in 1987 in the northern German port. Van Basten had left the club a few months earlier for AC Milan after heading in the deciding 1-0 over East Germany’s Lok Leipzig in the 1987 European Cup Winners’ Cup final.

Ajax went on to lift the UEFA Cup in 1992 and the Champions League in 1995, their fourth win in the elite event following the Johan Cruyff-led treble 1971-1973.

That was to be the last big success. The so-called Bosman ruling, which outlawed foreign player restrictions, ignited an exodus of stars. Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf were just some players who left for Barcelona and elsewhere starting in 1996.

Ajax never really recovered, went through many coaches, last won the domestic title in 2004 and went out in the first round of the UEFA Cup last year.

The reputations of the club’s famous football schools - based on the fact that every team at the club plays the famous 4-3-3 attacking game, known as total football, from Cruyff’s era - also eroded.

Serious crisis management started in early 2008, and a long-term deal through 2012 was struck with former national team coach Van Basten to revive the team. Cruyff was also to play a leading role but could not agree on a concept with van Basten and withdrew.

Van Basten, 44, got some money to spend, including 16 million euros for 19-year-old Serbian striker Miralem Sulejmani from league rivals Heerenveen.

The team has done well this season, though a 2-0 league defeat last weekend against new leaders Alkmaar dropped them to third place.

Success on the European stage was not immediately hoped for, and Ajax duly lost their group stage opener 2-1 at Aston Villa.

But they rebounded to beat Slovakia’s Zilina 2-1 at home before having a big day in the duel of former European champions in Hamburg, handing the Germans their first home defeat of the season.

Leonardo admitted, “We had hoped for a draw,” and the Trouw paper called the victory in Germany “surprising” on its website.

Sulejmani showed his talent at times, and 22-year-old Urby Emanuelson posed some danger while the defence stood firm. Nine starters were aged 19 to 23 with none older than 28. Only three
starters were Dutch.

“Maybe we were a little scared in the beginning. The team then had more faith in the second half,” said Van Basten.

Hamburg’s Dutch defender Joris Mathijsen said that Ajax “have quality and are young.”

Van Basten, always more pragmatic than the purists such as Cruyff, acknowledged that his team didn’t play total football but rather “calm and compact” - so often a winning formula.

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