Ajax A1 will finish the pool phase of the NextGen Series on Tuesday (7p.m.) with a home game against their counterparts from Chelsea FC. Despite the fact that A1 is already assured of a spot among the last sixteen teams, the game against The Blues will be a key one for the Ajax players. “It’s all about the starting point”, explains A1 coach Alfons Groenendijk. “We want to be first, but we could also end up in third place. It’s all about the rankings, and whether we get a favourable or difficult draw.”
Midway through December, Chelsea hosted Groenendijk’s Ajax team. The meeting in London remained scoreless, but delivered a great show. “The match was a very high youth level, a true top match”, recalls the Ajax coach. “It was a miracle that no goals were scored that night. I was pleased with how we played. We showed lots of initiative. The match could have gone either way.”
The point that was won from that game in England was sufficient to earn a spot in the next (knock out) round of the NextGen Series. This was also the result of the large goal balance that Ajax had earned. The two goal-rich wins against Molde (5-0 wins away at home) played an important part. Pool mate CSKA Moscow defeated Ajax once (2-1). The Russian team was subsequently beaten at the Toekomst, 2-1. In the next round, an opponent that must be defeated in several games awaits. “If we get first place, we’re in the draw for a home game. That’s naturally what we want”, explains Groenendijk.
The Ajax coach feels that his players are developing well. The European duels are giving them a wealth of experience. In addition to that, the Eredivisie competition games for A-juniors are the common thread in their development. “We’ve made steps”, says Groenendijk with satisfaction, while, out of the corner of his eye, he watches Lionel Messi score four times against Osasuna on television.
“We’re more stable now. We’re also seeing that the guys are taking more initiative and that we, as a team, are determining what happens. Those are things that we want to see, and that we’re fortunately seeing more and more. There’s also more confidence in the group; the guys are becoming more aware of what’s expected. Their approach is good too. It needs to be, because there’s a lot of prestige associated with playing against a top club like Chelsea.”
The preparation for the closing group match is going according to plan, says Groenendijk. For previous European matches, the coach had A-selection players Mickey van der Hart and Lucas Andersen at his disposal. In a week in which the first team plays a cup match against Vitesse and Jong Ajax plays against Jong PSV, reinforcements from Frank de Boer’s group won’t be available. The arrival of Jong Ajax players Lesley de Sa and Fabian Sporkslede is definitely welcome. But Groenendijk can also draw talent from the lower youth echelons. “Jairo Riedewald is only sixteen and a B-junior, but he’ll most likely be in the squad against Chelsea. That’s nice and says a lot about his qualities, and the qualities that we have in the youth academy.”
The aim in this last game is to grab the lead in the group. Groenendijk is hoping that his Ajax players will be supported by as many fans as possible at de Toekomst. The practice match (2-1) on Saturday against Top Class team Katwijk was a good dress rehearsal. The meeting with Chelsea will be exciting. “Everyone wants to be there, that tells you something”, says Groenendijk. “If you look at the individual development, you really want to win this match. This game is important for the club, you want to come off looking good. As a coach, I’m looking forward to it too, of course.”
Ajax A1 – Chelsea takes place on Tuesday from 7p.m. at the Toekomst sports complex. Admission to the match is free of charge. Keep watching Ajax TV for a pre-match show and highlights of the last NextGen Series group match of this season.