Frank de Boer and Ricardo van Rhijn were realistic when looking ahead to another meeting with FC Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League. The 3-1 loss earlier this season in Barcelona doesn’t offer much perspective. Last week’s 2-1 win is, however, excellent for morale. “We have nothing to lose against Barcelona”, said De Boer.
His pre-match conference was full of fighting words. The Ajax coach knows what he wants to see from the Ajax players on Wednesday. “The players need to want to play their best game ever. That’s the attitude I want to see”, said De Boer unequivocally. “This match is the first step towards getting even better. We need to show the world that we can be at this level.” The many cameras and reporters dutifully noted everything in the pre-game press conference. De Boer, being an experienced and highly praised coach as well and a former player with both Ajax and Barça, De Boer is an expert from experience. He also knows: “Against a team playing as well as Barça, you always have room. They’re also the favourite. Last year we were a good example. As a team, we put them off their game. They couldn’t breathe, and had no air to pull themselves out of it. We did is together, as a team. We can perform well if everyone does his best. I want to see passion and confidence. That’s the most important thing.”
That home victory is historic. Goals by Thulani Serero and Danny Hoesen were fatal to the then Messi-less Barcelona. That 2-1 win last season is still held up as an example one year later. The Amsterdam team did suffer two brutal losses at the hands of Barcelona – with Lionel Messi – after that. “You’re not just playing against Messi, but against Neymar and Luis Suarez, too”, countered De Boer when asked how he planned to stop the Argentinian star player. “We’re playing against the whole team. Messi is hard to beat, but it’s not impossible. We’ll need to work well together and do it as a team. And we need to show respect, but not fear. Fear isn’t good.”
Suarez returns to the ArenA on Wednesday as an FC Barcelona player. The Uruguayan can see some UEFA Champions League playing time against his former club. His return to familiar territory can be emotional for Suarez, emphasized De Boer. “Luis is a hard worker. A fighter. So no matter what, it will be a good match.”
Ajax is meeting Barcelona in a strange period. It doesn’t happen often that the Catalan powerhouse loses twice in a row. After their loss in El Clásico (3-1 to Real Madrid) Luis Enrique’s team lost last weekend to Celta de Vigo, 0-1. “Barcelona will therefore be very motivated when they come here”, realizes Ricardo van Rhijn. “There are high expectations for every top club. It’s the same at Ajax. The fact that Barcelona has lost twice is unusual. They will want to make up for it here. In that respect, we can just go for it. This remains the best podium to show what you can do.” De Boer doesn’t thing that the Catalan will throw their game plan or playing style overboard after two losses. “I don’t think they’re fazed”, continued the man who played 144 games in the Primera Division. “They will be under pressure. That’s part of the deal with a club like FC Barcelona. Barça will want to get back into a flow. At our expense.”
Nicolai Boilesen and Thulani Serero have been suffering from light complaints in the past week. Both Ajax players are now in good shape and trained with the team on Tuesday. In terms of personnel, Ajax will be able to meet the Catalans at full strength. “We need to make a match of it”, were De Boer’s motivating words. “If you want to achieve anything against a team like Barcelona, then you need to have the ball. It needs to be better than our last match against Barcelona. And we can do better. I’m hoping to see that tomorrow evening.”