In Camp Nou’s ‘sala de premsa’ (Catalan for press room), Frank de Boer and Bojan Krkic provided a preview of the first Champions League game against FC Barcelona. Barça’s former player and loaned out player showed respect for their upcoming opponent, but, as Ajax players, are remaining true to their own strengths. Siem de Jong will start on the squad on Wednesday against Barcelona.
Very few football followers or Ajax fans truly believe that success will come in the form of a win or a tie against FC Barcelona. The general opinion is that Ajax will have a tough time against the best football team of the past few years. And likely, a very tough time. A few days prior to the Champions League opening, general opinion seems to be firmly rooted in reality. Barça has belonged to the absolute top in recent years. Ajax hopes to be on its way to the upper echelons. However, these low expectations do offer the Amsterdam team an exceptional opportunity to surprise everyone as the underdog.
“Obviously, it’s never nice when people think like that”, was Frank de Boer’s reaction to the low expectations that many seem to have. It’s a prognosis that’s most probably partly based on the recent meetings against Real Madrid. In the past two years of the Champions League, Ajax has been left hopeless each time against Madrid. Real Madrid and FC Barcelona are the powerhouses of Spain and, consequently, belong to top football on a global level. There is very little difference between the top clubs, as is proven time and time again when Real and Barça meet for each new edition of El Clásico.
“It’s probably not unimportant that we’re not currently in the best shape”, continued De Boer. The Ajax coach was a player in Camp Nou for five years. The Monnickendam native knows the club and its football temple as few others do. “In contrast, Barça is doing pretty well. But I’m still convinced that we need to play our own game. It’s hard to play dominant football against Barcelona. But if we reach our own level, I’ll be happy. Reaching your own level is the most important. Players should actually rise above their own level. These matches are a great opportunity to do that.”
This first official meeting with FC Barcelona is also an opportunity to measure themselves, as De Boer knows. “This match is a test case to see how we measure up to Barça’s level.” Last season, the Eredivisie champion faced a very difficult pool, with the national champions of Germany (Borussia Dortmund), England (Manchester City) and Spain (Real Madrid). In Barcelona, De Boer emphasized how they managed to stay afloat in most of their pool matches. Or, such as was the case against Manchester United, to pull off an upset. “We always need to remain true to our own game”, De Boer once again emphasized this fundamental for his Ajax players. “That’s how we did it in the last Champions League rounds. Especially by Borussia Dortmund and the first match against AC Milan, so it worked last year. That’s the approach I want to see. I’ll be satisfied with that. Of course you know that Lionel Messi and Neymar can force something when they want to. But it’s all about reaching your own level. That is, and remains, the most important thing.”
Still, De Boer is a realist. The Ajax coach is obviously not blind to the relationships within European club football. De Boer: “In the end, it’s not so strange to lose to Real Madrid or perhaps to FC Barcelona. That happens to many teams. It's more about how it happens. I think that significant changes have occurred at Ajax in the past seasons. We’ve started playing differently in certain areas. But if you’re going to lose, then do it the Ajax way.” He emphasized afterwards to the Spanish contingent in the press room what he wants to see tomorrow evening: appealing players playing to their own strengths.
Naturally, De Boer and Krkic are signing up for a Celtic-style upset, when the team last year miraculously succeeded in defeating Barcelona. De Boer refuses to make any concessions in terms of how the Catalan club will be played. “We’re not suddenly going to train or play the way Celtic did against Barça. We need to play according to our own system as much as possible, because that’s what we do best. What’s important is that we can apply pressure at certain moments, and force them to make mistakes. And subsequently, take advantage of those mistakes. Ajax can and should have respect for this opponent. But we also need to play our own game.”
In the packed press room at Fútbol Club Barcelona, De Boer closed the press moment with news that Siem de Jong will start on Wednesday. The captain returned on Saturday against PEC Zwolle (2-1), and will be available as of kick-off. “We need to see how long Siem can play for. I’m definitely hoping for an hour”, said De Boer hopefully.