When AFC Ajax and AC Milan walk out at the Amsterdam ArenA tonight, it will be their fourth meeting inside seven months. Beaten by an injury-time goal in last April's UEFA Champions League quarter-final and then edged out 1-0 in the San Siro in September, it is little wonder striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic predicts a tough night for Ronald Koeman's side.
"I played against them three times before and it will be a very difficult game," the Swedish international said. "
We won't get so many chances and when we do we have to score and keep compact in the team and stay focused for 90 minutes."
Victory could be vital
Ajax are certainly not short of incentives. There is revenge for one, and more importantly, the wish to progress from Group H where they sit in second place, a point behind Milan. They have won both their home games so far yet have lost twice away, so with a visit to Club Brugge KV to come, victory tonight could be vital.
So far so good
Zlatan is optimistic. "I think we've done a good job even if we didn't play so well," he said. "We're second in the Champions League with two games to go and we're first in the [Dutch] championship and we should not complain as we have a lot of new players. It's so far so good."
It is certainly good for Zlatan this season. He has scored ten goals in all competitions, including the winner against RC Celta de Vigo on Matchday 3. The 22-year-old is now in his third term in Amsterdam, where he arrived from Malmö FF in 2001, and despite a recent change of agent insists he is happy there.
I think for a young player Ajax is a good choice," he said. "They teach you how to be a professional. They develop you as a player. You learn a lot. They have a bit more patience with the players because they are still young, although we still have pressure on ourselves."
Sweden coach Lars Lagerbäck once described Zlatan as "the greatest talent I have ever seen". He combines height and power with a delicate touch and, happily for both Ajax and Sweden, believes he can only get better. "I think I had my qualities even when I came to Ajax but now I have found a balance to my game," he said.
"I play more for the team, I play with more confidence. I feel good with [Ajax coach Ronald] Koeman, he has developed me a lot. Everybody has a dream to play in Italy, Spain, England but at the moment I feel good at Ajax. I feel I can develop much more."
Contract until 2006
Zlatan, whose Ajax contract runs until 2006, accepts that he will not stay in Amsterdam for ever, though. "Ajax invest in young players, they keep you here, they make you a good player. Then after a couple of years you go abroad, this is how it works. Ajax could have been a top team if you look at what kind of players they produce, but that's football."
That is football, but it also leaves him to reflect on what might have been. Ajax lost Cristian Chivu and Andy van der Meyde in the summer and he believes "if we could have kept the team from last year I think we could have been one of the top three, the top five in Europe". Yet they remain competing with Europe's finest, starting with Milan tonight.
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