Ajax only needs a tie against APOEL Nicosia on Wednesday to secure a spot in the UEFA Europa League. The Cypriots need to win in order to earn a spot after the winter break. “APOEL needs to win, but we are also going for the win”, were Joël Veltman’s fighting words during the press conference. “This will be a great match.”
Before Ajax’s European matches, Frank de Boer is usually flanked by a player during the pre-match press conference. On Tuesday, the honour belonged to Joël Veltman. The central defender, who scored with a beautiful chip against Willem II (5-0) on Saturday, is a sure entity on Frank de Boer’s squad.
“I’ve become a better player in the Champions League”, was Veltman’s answer when asked about his personal development. It’s at times in the CL that the central defender has found himself to be playing at a higher level. More is expected of the North Holland native, as well as of his team mates. “The moments you experience at this level make you better and smarter.” As a team, Ajax is also developing in the right way. Veltman sees that Ajax will achieve its European ambitions. “Last season, we just barely missed out on staying in the Champions League after the break. But we have faith. We’re building something great. One day, we’ll play in the Champions League after the winter break.”
A tie on Wednesday will suffice to continue in European football in the new year. APOEL is the last hurdle in order to reach Europea League. “I’m not expecting APOEL to play any differently”, said Frank de Boer, referring to the first pool match between the clubs, in Cyprus. The meeting resulted in an unsatisfactory 1-1 draw. “APOEL sits back and waits, and they know that we like to dominate. And should they play differently, we’re prepared for that, too. We should have won in Cyprus. We played a good game there.”
The Ajax coach has included 19 players in his current match selection. Richairo Zivkovic is the most surprising name in the group. De Boer will scale back his selection to eighteen on match day. As to who will be cut, that depends somewhat on Anwar El Ghazi’s fitness. The forward is suffering from a groin injury and underwent one last test on Tuesday. “It’s looking good”, said De Boer. The Ajacied naturally would like the young winger to be part of the game. “Anwar has proven to be an important player. He’s got speed and scoring ability. It’s a mark against us if he’s not there.” It’s not a done deal for Zivkovic to be the first to be kicked out of the 18 man team. “I’ll decide on Wednesday”, was all De Boer would say about his upcoming decision.
Despite the fact that Ajax hasn’t managed to make it past the winter break in the Champions League, De Boer sees enough athletic challenges in the Europa League. “You always need to strive to the best. There are some fantastic teams playing in the Europa League. The point is to get better. That’s why these European matches are so important for development. The pace is faster. You can also get to work in the Europa League. Much better than if you’re only playing in the competition. It’s very positive to stay active in the EL for as long as possible.”
“At the end of the day, I would have rather battled for second place with Paris Saint-Germain”, said De Boer. The Ajax coach feels that Ajax could have achieved more in this CL round. Especially in the home games against PSG plus Barcelona and the away match against APOEL in in Paris, Ajax kept up well, but wasn’t able to win. “We knew that this pool would be tough. But the results are what we have on the table now.”