For Tuesday evening’s game in the Amsterdam ArenA, Frank de Boer won’t make any significant changes to his line-up compared to the away match at Rapid Wien. The coach announced this on the eve of the key return match in the UEFA Champions League third-round qualifying match. “There won’t be many changes in the line-up”, said De Boer. Ajax will play before their home crowd after a 2-2 tie in Austria.
Midway through the match in Vienna, Ajax seemed to already have one foot in the final qualifying round. A good first half was, however, followed with a poor second one. Rapid drew up to 1-2 shortly after the break, and was even able to score the tying goal with only ten men. According to De Boer, Ajax learned a lot from the second half. “The guys need to understand what is needed at certain times, even against ten men. We emphasized that to them and showed them images. I think they got the message.”
In Vienna, Ajax played with its youngest team ever in a European match. Despite the high stakes, De Boer has a good feeling. “I think we have a great mix. Despite their young age, we have several guys with Champions League experience. Obviously, a young team needs more guidance than a more experienced one. The question is whether or not they are exceptional talents. Otherwise, you can sometimes take more risks.”
Ajax’s pre-season preparations were fully focused on the Champions League qualifying rounds, and therefore different than in previous years. “Normally, the first competition match is the most important one. Of course we take the Johan Cruijff Shield seriously, but you could also see that as part of the preparation. Now, we needed to be ready after just four weeks. The matches against Rapid Wien are crucial for us. Hopefully we’ll get to play in two more play-off matches leading up to the main tournament.”
De Boer expects that Ajax will only get stronger physically. “Last week, I found that the intensity dropped after seventy minutes, and that has to do with rhythm. You could really see that we’d already played two ‘real’ matches. We played good friendly matches. I know that they’re only friendly matches, but we played some pretty solid teams and managed to play pretty well for sixty minutes. I think that we now need to take the next step.”
When there are press conferences on the eve of a European match, a player usually joins in. This time, it was Jasper Cillessen’s turn. The goalie didn’t mince his words. “Last week, we should have been at 0-4 or 0-5 by halftime. We need to make sure that we keep a clean sheet now, and then we’ll go through. We really want to play in the Champions League again.”
In the media, Cillessen’s name is regularly discussed in the same breath as Manchester United. The Gelderland-born player isn’t fazed by this, as he discussed. “Right now I’m fully focused on the matches against Rapid, and don’t have time for any other rumors. As long as I haven’t heard anything from my management, I’m not worried. Moreover, I’m having a great time at Ajax, the team with which I’m going to qualify for the next Champions League round tomorrow night.”