On Thursday evening, Ajax aims to take its first step towards the next round of the UEFA Europa League. The Dutch champion will meet the Polish champion Legia Warsaw in the round of thirty-two. On the eve of the duel in the Amsterdam ArenA, Frank de Boer discussed the importance of getting ahead for Ajax and Dutch football.
In addition to Ajax, Feyenoord (against AS Roma) and PSV (against Zenit Saint-Petersburg) will also play their first European match of 2015 on Thursday evening. “The Dutch clubs need to make sure we go further in the Europa League. That’s perhaps the most important thing right now”, said Frank de Boer to the journalists assembled in the ArenA’s press room. “It’s very important for us and for Dutch football to progress in Europe.”
A successful European campaign can still add some much-needed glory to Ajax’s season. After cup disqualification at the hands of Vitesse and the big gap separating Ajax from leader PSV, several nice European matches are now on the agenda. “We’re going to everything we can to reach the next round. In the past years, we’ve regularly shown what we can do in European matches. We now want to go as far as possible in the Europa League. It’s good for our young selection’s European experience.” When asked what an unfortunate elimination at the hands of Legia would mean, De Boer answered: “If we don’t win any prizes at all, the season will have been a failure.”
Van der Hoorn emphasized his coach’s words. The 22 year-old defender replaces Joël Veltman (injured) against Legia: “The Europa League is a big deal in our group. Of course we would have preferred to be in the UEFA Champions League, but hopefully great things will come from the Europa League. Personally, I haven’t played many European matches yet, so each match at this level is great experience for me. We’re going to do everything we can to make it to the next round. Perhaps there’s more there.”
Except for Veltman, everyone is fit for this first match against the Polish leader. Lucas Andersen, Davy Klaassen, Thulani Serero and even reserve keeper Diederik Boer have completely recovered. Ricardo van Rhijn seems like a sure thing as well. The right back was forced to sit out the FC Twente match due to ankle injuries, but did fine in the last training. “I’m assuming he’ll be able to play. We need to wait and see how he reacts, but it all looks positive”, elaborated De Boer.
The Polish reporters in the room were understandably interested in whether or not their fellow Pole Arek Milik would be at kick-off. De Boer didn’t reveal much. “He’s in the match selection”, was his succinct comment. When another reporter from Poland asked if Milik – after his stint as a substitute in the last few matches – is currently in a crisis, De Boer was very clear: “Milik is absolutely not in a crisis. He lost his place to Schöne, because we needed a target man, not because he wasn’t playing well. Milik is young and had a lot of momentum shortly after his debut. He scored a lot during that time. He’s currently working very hard to reach that level again. Maybe he’ll come back even better.”
Van der Hoorn was reminded of the referee who is on tomorrow’s match sheet. Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson – who will be refereeing his 99th European match on Thursday – turned the 2013 CL match against AC Milan into a nightmare for Van der Hoorn. After a supposed foul on Mario Balotelli, he placed the ball on the spot a few minutes before the end of the match. A 1-1 score and costly loss of points was the result. “If he and I just do our jobs tomorrow, there’s no problem. Did he do that against Milan? I didn’t think it was a penalty. But it happened a year and a half ago, time has passed.”
Ajax is focussed on finally reaching a spot among the last sixteen players. After their elimination against Manchester United (2011-2012) Ajax has been eliminated in the first Europa League round after the winter break for the past two seasons. That needs to change against the relatively unknown Legia Warsaw. And despite the fact that Legia lost last weekend to the divided number 3 B-team Jagiellonia Bialystok (1-3), De Boer is clear on his opponent’s strengths. “Fortunately we have Arek Milik and our master scout Tonny Bruins Slot. Thanks to them, we know how they play, and what they can do.”
Legia has experience in its side, emphasized Ajax’s coach on Wednesday. “The average age of their selection is around 29 years. They have some younger players on the flanks, but they’re in their 20s. Moreover, there are reasons that Legia was first in the group phase. Moreover, if that suspended player hadn’t been put in then they’d even be playing in the Champions League. In both play-off matches against Celtic, they were clearly stronger. That says a lot. Legia is thus a difficult opponent. We need to be prepared.”