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Ajax best is yet to come

Published: Tuesday 18 February 2003, 21.30CET
AFC Ajax coach Ronald Koeman insists his young side have more to offer after holding Arsenal FC.
Published: Tuesday 18 February 2003, 21.30CET

Ajax best is yet to come

AFC Ajax coach Ronald Koeman insists his young side have more to offer after holding Arsenal FC.

By Adam Szreter

Not for the first time the achievements of Arsène Wenger's Arsenal FC failed to match their European hopes and expectations, while Ajax AFC, deprived of several first-choice players, showed why many believe Ronald Koeman's young side is the club's most promising since the last of their four European triumphs eight years ago.

Stirring performance
Koeman would not claim his side deserved to win; but missing the likes of Jari Litmanen and Rafael van der Vaart, and against a full-strength Arsenal side buoyed by their recent FA Cup success at Manchester United FC, it was a performance that former star players of the club such as the watching Johann Cruyff would have been proud of.

Impressive Chivu
Marshalled by their impressive 22-year-old captain Cristian Chivu, their defence kept Arsenal at arm's length for most of the time, attackers such as Andy ven der Meyde and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were a constant threat, while Tomáš Galásek and Steven Pienaar prompted intelligently from midfield.

Wiltord opener
Arsenal, meanwhile, lacked the guile to break their opponents' considerable spirit. Inspired by their former Ajax ace, Denis Bergkamp, they began as though intent on dismantling the Dutch champions. It took them five minutes to take the lead through Sylvain Wiltord, a wonderful sweeping move from deep inside their own half, but then they sat back and allowed Ajax to settle their understandable nerves.

Sucker-punch
Even so, and despite a wonderful pass from Galásek, it was a sucker-punch that brought the scores level just 12 minutes later, Nigel de Jong slipping past Ashley Cole to fire past a helpless David Seaman. The remainder of the first half promised much without the final ball ever quite being delivered by either team, and the second half continued in much the same vein.

'We can play better'
The teams meet again in a week's time in Amsterdam, and Koeman said afterwards: "We can play better, and we will have to in order to win next week. In defence we played well, but in attack we can play better, and in midfield sometimes we lost the ball too easily. Arsenal did not reach their level, but maybe the way we played influenced that. And maybe next week we will have one or two of our attacking players back."

'Group wide open'
Koeman's opposite number, Wenger, had lost his voice well before his team lost their attacking script, failing to take advantage of the considerable amount of possession they enjoyed in the second half. But his assistant Pat Rice remained confident: "We can get a victory over there, and we're still confident of going through, the group is wide open now."

'Nothing to lose'
With Valencia CF winning in Rome that is undoubtedly true, as three sides now have five points. "We have nothing to lose," said Chivu of his own team's chances of progressing to the last eight. "Nobody has picked us to win the Champions League but we just enjoy playing every game and I hope in coming games we will do much more than we did tonight."

'Scared of Arsenal'
"It was a good result for us," the Romanian added. "A good first half and I still expected more because I expected Ajax to play better in the second half with better possession. But we were a bit scared of Arsenal and we just wanted to keep the draw, which in the end was OK. We could have gone back to Amsterdam with much more than one point, but at the same time we could have lost this game given the chances Arsenal created in the second half."

Last updated: 19/02/03 11.27CET

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