On Monday, Frank de Boer and Lasse Schöne looked ahead to Ajax – FC Barcelona in the ArenA. As always, Ajax will rely on its own strength. “Only then will we have the greatest chance at posting a good result”, said coach De Boer in the press room. “The best doesn’t necessarily always win.”
The question that NOS reporter Martin Vriesema opened the press conference with was intriguing. Is the Ajax coach thinking like a fan, or (more business-like) as an Ajax coach about the fact that the injured Lionel Messi won’t be playing in the ArenA on Tuesday? In short, is there a reason to be optimistic about a – potentially – greater chance at success considering that the Argentinian star won’t be among the opponents? Or does the fan in De Boer feel it’s a shame that the world’s best won’t be facing his team?
De Boer’s answer was mostly business-like. And realistic. “We want to be in second place. And of course it makes a difference if Messi is there or not”, said De Boer. “With his goals, he’s important in terms of the scoring build-up and he also makes many assists. On the other hand: Barcelona hasn’t lost many points, even without Messi. They have several good players; they’re a good team. We need to arm ourselves as well as possible. Normally FC Barcelona has many qualities. But the best doesn’t always win.”
Much in De Boer’s pre-game presentation was reminiscent of the words the trainer had spoken before the home game against Celtic. The Ajax man repeated the trusted story of playing to ‘our own strengths’ in Tuesday’s game in the sold-out ArenA. “Playing our own game is the most important thing”, emphasized De Boer. “Only then will we have the greatest chance at posting a good result”
Earlier in this football year, Ajax made a decent impression in Camp Nou – despite the 4-0 defeat. Ajax has come literally and figuratively much further since that September evening during which Messi struck three times, and Piqué scored too. “We’re in much better form than we were back then.” Ajax has played the last three matches to De Boer’s satisfaction. The Ajax players are playing with confidence. De Boer: “Let’s take the feeling that we’re tough to beat out there with us tomorrow.”
What does Ajax need to do in order to have a chance at succeeding against Barcelona? It was another interesting question from one of the reporters. Once again, the Ajax coach talked about parts of the match in Catalonia. “In Camp Nou, we managed to come out from underneath the pressure that Barcelona was putting on us. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do that here, too. Otherwise, it’s also a matter of making the right decisions. And we need to put on the pressure, as a team. If not, we don’t stand a chance. I definitely feel like we’ve made progress as a group. How do I notice that? For example in our build-up, game plan, and the fact that we are making fewer mistakes. We’re also better and continuously applying pressure onto our opponent. That was not the case one month ago.” Schöne agrees with his coach’s words: “We haven’t given much away in the past few weeks; we’re on the right path. It gives us confidence to have performed that way in the last weeks.”
With Siem de Jong and Kolbeinn Sigthórsson both injured, the question about who will play at centre forward is a key one. Danny Hoesen (‘a true centre forward’, according to De Boer), Davy Klaassen (‘can fill the position well’) and Lasse Schöne (‘could try him out as centre forward) are De Boer’s top three potentials for the centre forward position. “But we’ll see tomorrow who will be playing in that spot”, De Boer ended the discussion with a smile.
The home game against Barcelona is not expected to be a deciding one in terms of the pool rankings. Barcelona has already qualified for the knock-out phase of the Champions League. Milan, Ajax and Celtic are fighting for the spot under the Catalan team. An Ajax player who will likely be participating in Ajax’s quest for a good result against the Spaniards is Lerin Duarte. The midfielder has been declared fit and is part of the match selection. The stomach flu that affected several players around the home game against Heracles Almelo (3-0) has pretty much disappeared.