Litmanen on his two great loves: 'Ajax and Liverpool are similar'

Litmanen Knuffel 1280
Litmanen Knuffel 1280

With his hands busy gesturing and facing the stands, he lectures Davy Klaassen at Anfield. Trainer Alfred Schreuder listens intently. Just before that, Richard Witschge and Maarten Stekelenburg come towards the Liverpool sidelines for a meeting with Jari Litmanen. A day before the Champions League game at Anfield, Litmanen is a sought-after interviewee. Still a hero in Amsterdam, still loved in Liverpool.

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His presence at Ajax's training session in England in early September a day before the Champions League Match is not based on mere coincidence. Liverpool and Ajax are still close to Litmanen's heart. Or as he himself describes it: "Ajax ended up being the most important club of my career, but as a kid I was always a Liverpool fan."

We speak to the affable Finn at Helsinki airport. A few moments before the plane leaves for his holiday destination. "Just call me, I have time for you."

Family club
The Finn sounds excited. Logical, with a relaxing trip ahead. But chatting about Liverpool and Ajax is something he loves to do. Quite early in the conversation, he returns to the beginning of this millennium. Litmanen signed a contract with Liverpool in early January 2001, leaving FC Barcelona.
"To play for a club you are a supporter of yourself is fantastic. I met club legends like Kenny Dalglish and John Barnes there and immediately noticed that Liverpool is a real family club. In many respects, then, Ajax and Liverpool are similar. Both play in beautiful traditional kit. They have also put football as their number one priority."

The Finn seems to be in the right place at Anfield in 2001. A new generation with players like Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher is just grabbing the reins at Liverpool. Litmanen is 30 and could have a defining role at midfield. Just like years before in Amsterdam. As a playmaker, he conquered the UEFA Champions League with Ajax in the mid-1990s. Equally important: the Finn is becoming a crowd favourite in Amsterdam. Jari is suddenly the most chosen name for a son in the Netherlands in the 1990s.

Call from Koeman
But his time at Liverpool is limited to a year and a half while his contract at the time runs for another year. An unexpected change of coach proved disastrous for his Liverpool period. "Actually, I was having a great time. The supporters also thought I was a good player and the English media wrote positively about me."

His coach, the late Gerard Houllier, regularly used Litmanen in his squad, the Finn tells us by phone. But when the Frenchman is out for several months due to an operation on his heart, his replacement (Phil Thompson) turns out to be less of a fan of Litmanen.
"His outlook on football was definitely slightly different from Houllier's. As a result, I didn't get to play as much. I felt fine otherwise and had a pretty good time at Liverpool even with fewer minutes. Until Ronald Koeman phoned me."

He began his first full season as Ajax head coach in the summer of 2002. Koeman is looking for an experienced player to guide a promising group of players in their first steps into the professional world. "In my first spell at Ajax, I was a young player in the team. Now, precisely as an experienced midfielder, I wanted to help the new generation of Ajax players."

Litmanen ends up getting to play with guys like Rafael van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder, Andy van der Meijde, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Nigel de Jong, Steven Pienaar, and so on. "A magnificent eleven."

The club he left in tears in 1999 immediately welcomed him back with open arms. "The supporters were delighted with my return," he explains. "I could now pass on again the things I had learned in my first spell at Ajax and later at Barcelona under Louis van Gaal."

Still in love with Ajax
Although his second spell in Amsterdam no longer brings unprecedented success as in the mid-1990s, his status as a club legend remains untouched. And the Amsterdam supporters still worship him. Litmanen still enjoys coming to the capital. "I am in Amsterdam around a couple of times per year. Most recently with Ajax - Napoli. Before that, I was there once for a signing session, and I was also there during the championship in May."

And even when Ajax play football on the other side of the North Sea, Litmanen does not miss the opportunity to watch his old club. He did see Ajax come up short against Liverpool in September: 2-1.

"Actually, I was hoping for a draw," Litmanen laughed on the other end of the line. "But if you are honest, this Liverpool has more experience at this level. In the past five years, they reached the Champions League final three times. Of that squad, only Sadio Mané left as a star player."
"Ajax, on the other hand, has to build a completely new eleven. Unfortunately they did not play their very best game at Anfield. At the end of the second half, they still had very little ball possession. And playing football at Anfield is never easy. Liverpool then have the quality to erase the defeat they suffered earlier against Napoli at home."

Prediction
So is it hopeless for Ajax against last season's English runner-up at the Johan Cruijff ArenA on Wednesday? Not at all, in Litmanen's opinion. "Ajax always plays better at home. Of course they have a chance. You saw that against Liverpool two years ago. In addition, top teams are often in the spotlight. I don't think they have any big surprises in store for Ajax. The fact that Ajax have all lost the last three games by a minimal margin says something." 

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