Sat | Sep 23, 2017

Ajax aiming to relive past glories

Published:Wednesday | May 24, 2017 | 5:00 AM
Ajax coach Peter Bosz
Ajax's Justin Kluivert (right) goes for the ball with Kasper Dolberg during a training session at the Friends Arena in Stockholm yesterday.
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AMSTERDAM (AP):

A year ago, Ajax could dominate possession but struggled to stamp its authority on quality opponents.

After one season in charge, coach Peter Bosz has transformed the long-dormant Dutch powerhouse into a dynamic team of young players who swarm forward in attack and are just as aggressive in defence.

What has he changed to achieve the turnaround?

"Almost everything," Bosz said ahead of his team's Europa League final against Manchester United in Stockholm today.

"When I started, I knew how to play, but I didn't know with which players," Bosz said. "Now the players understand exactly what I mean - pressing, high pressing and high ball tempo, how we build up from behind, these kinds of things."

That philosophy is hardly new to Ajax. It's the swift-passing style of play that won the Amsterdam club three straight European Cups in the early 1970s and the Champions League in 1995.

But since a 1-0 victory over AC Milan in Vienna 22 years ago, and a loss on penalties against Juventus in the Champions League final the following year, Ajax have been largely left behind by free-spending European powers.

 

Proof of impact

 

Bosz believes his team's trip to Stockholm to play Manchester United is proof clubs with limited budgets but talented young players can still have an impact, at least in Europe's second-tier club competition.

"For a long time people in Holland said it's not possible for a Dutch team to play any finals anymore because the financial difference between the big clubs in Europe and the Dutch clubs is so big now," he said. "But we've made it."

Ajax, runners-up to Feyenoord in the Dutch league this season, are back in a European final thanks to their renowned youth programme, which has for decades churned out talented stars, and the club's knack for scouting stars of the future.

Amsterdam was the first overseas stop for Manchester United striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who will miss the final in his home country because of injury. Ajax have uncovered another Scandinavian star in Kasper Dolberg, the 19-year-old striker who already has six goals in the Europa League this season and whose cool finishing has earned comparisons to Marco van Basten. Dolberg scored a goal in each leg of Ajax's semi-final victory over Lyon.

Partnering Dolberg up front will be 21-year-old Burkina Faso forward Bertrand Traore, who is on loan from Chelsea and set to again run into the manager who lured him to London - Jose Mourinho.

Davinson Sanchez, a 20-year-old Colombian who has been one of Ajax's most consistent defenders all season, is the only player in the team with experience of a major final - he won the Copa Libertadores in July 2016 with Atletico Nacional.