Martin Jol is hoping to bring the "old times back" to AFC Ajax as the four-time European Champion Clubs' Cup winners prepare for their first home match in the UEFA Champions League group stage in five years against AC Milan.
It is a tie full of resonance for the Dutch side whose last title triumph came 15 years ago – against the Rossoneri in Vienna. Patrick Kluivert scored the only goal as Louis van Gaal's talented young team lifted the trophy and though times have changed and expectations with them, the importance of the competition to Ajax remains the same.
"At Ajax the first thing they do is invite you to the museum to see all of the cups; there aren't many clubs with more trophies," Jol told UEFA.com. "We won our last UEFA Champions League in 1995 and it's probably impossible to win it again. But because of our history, it's very important to us. The home games are already sold out, which shows what it means to our fans. Hopefully we can bring the old times back."
In one important respect Jol's side mirrors that last title-winning team. While financial restrictions may tie the coach's hands in the transfer market these days, he is still able to enjoy the fruits of the Ajax academy with no fewer than six of the lineup that lost to Real Madrid CF on Matchday 1 having come through the ranks. Like the Ajax class of 95, the current ensemble is built on youth – of that six, Gregory van der Wiel is 22 and Toby Alderweireld, Vurnon Anita and Siem de Jong all 21.
A baptism of fire at the Santiago Bernabéu proved too much a fortnight ago for Jol's charges, but he believes his side have plenty to offer. "There's a mentality at Ajax," said the former Tottenham Hotspur FC and Hamburger SV boss, who is competing in the UEFA Champions League for the first time. "Eight players from our academy are in the squad. They've got confidence and it's maybe a characteristic you need to play against these [top] teams. With Ajax you always have good young players.
"In football anything is possible," added Jol and that is certainly the case with a striker as prolific as Luis Suárez to call on. The Uruguayan international has already scored nine times for his club since helping his country reach the FIFA World Cup semi-finals, including goals against PAOK FC and FC Dynamo Kyiv in the qualifying rounds. His partnership with newcomer Mounir El Hamdaoui, moreover, has yielded 16 goals so far.
When Milan, who qualified automatically for the group stage, kicked off their Serie A campaign on 29 August, Ajax's season was already a month old. Only 17 days after playing in the third-place play-off at the World Cup, Suárez struck against third qualifying round opponents PAOK and Ajax were up and running. There was never any doubt in Jol's mind as to the importance of that first fixture.
"We started playing on 28 July and all the players had just come back from the World Cup so that was difficult," said Jol. "They only had six or seven days off. Normally that's impossible, but they knew that our fans and the club needed the Champions League." Ajax advanced on the away-goals rule to set up a play-off with group stage regulars Dynamo Kyiv.
A 1-1 draw in the away leg set the scene for a memorable night at the Amsterdam Arena. "It was like a final, everybody was unbelievable; unbelievable atmosphere," said Jol of the 2-1 victory that sealed their progress. "
To reach the Champions League for the first time in five or six years was a great feeling."
Then reality dawned at the draw in Monaco. "We would have liked an easy group [but] the first in our group was Real Madrid, then AC Milan and then Ajax – it was a big blow. But when you work at Ajax as manager you can't say it is too difficult. Everybody knows it is, but they keep telling me we could beat Milan for example."
After losing the opener in Madrid, Jol understands just how important it is to get points on the board on Tuesday. With that 1995 triumph still reasonably fresh in the minds of Ajax fans, optimism will hold sway. "Milan are a big club, we saw them and we analysed them," said Jol. "We still have the sneaky feeling we could have seven or eight points and that would probably be enough."
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