By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 26, 2014) US Soccer Players – Amid increased policing over hooliganism concerns from traveling Ajax supporters in Paris, the team on the field lost again in the Champions League. Ajax had no chance of advancing in Group F, dominated by PSG and Barcelona. 10 points separate 2nd-place Barca from 3rd-place Ajax, with Ajax now serving as another recognizable club unable to win at the highest level.
Ajax’s main concern for match day six is not losing to APOEL at Amsterdam ArenA and missing out on the Europa League.
“We made some stupid mistakes and they got chances from them. We had the better possession, but we didn’t create chances. I’m not satisfied with our performance because we kept possession without really threatening. We needed to play the ball forward to score but we couldn’t put pressure on them.We hoped to punish them at 1-1, but then Zlatan scored a great goal. We made a mistake afterwards and lost the game. They had four chances and scored three times – that was the big difference between Paris and us.” Ajax goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen.
Few would’ve argued that Ajax had much of a chance to being with in Group F. PSG and Barcelona have the money. Ajax sold their best player to Manchester United at the start of the season. The Eredivisie has gradually slid down the competitive table though it’s always a safe bet for goals with so many clubs choosing offense over defense.
That doesn’t help in Europe, where the stronger leagues play to strengths that make it tough for clubs like Ajax. What works domestically exposes Ajax in Europe. Holding PSG to a 1-1 draw in match day one was a surprise result bordering on a shock. Finishing with the same score against APOEL in match day two was a disappointment that all but sealed Ajax’s fate in the group. They were playing for 3rd-place and the Europa League since late September, not exactly the Champions League dream.
At the tail end of last season, I saw Ajax play NEC in their final game of the season. Ajax clinched the title the previous week, while NEC was playing to escape relegation. Ajax dominated the first-half, playing that kind of pause and release soccer that is almost stereotypically Ajax. Thulani Caleeb would move the ball laterally between thirty and forty yards out, NEC would eventually lose shape, and a cutting pass would take half their defense out of the play. It was fun to watch, even if it only produced a laughable own goal from NEC.
By the second-half, NEC played like a team capable of doing enough not to lose. They equalized late, Ajax responded with a second goal, and NEC equalized again. The game finished in a draw when NEC needed all three points. One team celebrated their trophy/plate. The other would cut their front office staff in the coming weeks as they prepared for a season in the Eerste Divisie.
That next week I went to Groningen to watch a quirk of the Eredivisie, the first-leg of the mini-tournament for the second Champions League place. Groningen won on a late goal in a game that wouldn’t have looked out of place in an MLS stadium in October. They took the semifinal series from Vitesse and eventually shutout AZ 3-0 to advance into Europe. Groningen lasted exactly two games in the 2014-15 Europa League, knocked out by Aberdeen in the second qualifying round.
What differentiated Ajax from a club like Groningen last season was better position players. Not at all positions, just enough to make that difference. Again, this should sound familiar to fans of MLS. Ajax plays in the biggest stadium, has the most support, and certainly has the reputation. What they don’t have are enough of those position players to really threaten the elite teams of Europe. They’re not Groningen, but only the most advantageous of draws would’ve made them a favorite to get out of a Champions League group.
Ajax are one of many clubs caught between a domestic model that works and a European model that doesn’t reward them. Or at least doesn’t reward them enough. What’s interesting about the 2014-15 Champions League group stage is that there are clubs from much bigger leagues in Europe that should be considering the same thing.
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J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from J Hutcherson:
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