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Martin Jol is relishing the opportunity for his young AFC Ajax team to test their progress against Juventus this week, describing the UEFA Europa League round of 32 tie as a "fantastic experience" – although the coach is still optimistic of ousting the Italian giants.
Ajax are in fine fettle ahead of Thursday's first leg at the Amsterdam ArenA, winning six of their eight matches since concluding their Group A campaign with a 3-1 home defeat by RSC Anderlecht on 17 December, and the tie against the Bianconeri cannot come quickly enough for the coach. "We've got through the group stage and now we're in a good situation – Juventus are a big name with fantastic players," Jol told UEFA.com. "This season they've shown that older players can also have bad luck but if you look at their forwards they're fantastic players."
Jol will need no introduction to Juve playmaker Diego, architect of the Dutchman's downfall with Hamburger SV last season. "Last year I played two semi-finals with Hamburg, and Diego was the man who made the difference for Werder Bremen in the [German] Cup and the UEFA Cup," he reflected. "He'll be hoping to do the same thing at Juventus, but it hasn't happened so far. I hope that we can get a good result at home so that away to Juventus, which is always difficult, we can go through with another good result. That's our goal, although Juventus are still a club with a lot of experience in Europe. It's a fantastic experience for our young players."
Perhaps the most high-profile of Ajax's rising stars this season has been captain Luis Suárez, who has two goals and three assists to his name in the UEFA Europa League in addition to his 23 goals in 23 Eredivisie appearances and is described by Jol as "a big person in the Netherlands". The 23-year-old Uruguayan international is equally fulsome in his praise of the Ajax coach, explaining: "He has some aspects of a South American coach, which is great for me. The most important thing is that he has confidence in the team. There are coaches around who criticise things they don't like, but this coach always helps and supports us, and this gives us lots of confidence."
That belief is likely to be fully tested against Juventus, and Suárez pays little heed to their run of just four wins in 15 matches, with nine defeats in the same sequence prompting the departure of coach Ciro Ferrara. "Juventus have some great players even though they've been going through a bad time recently," he said. "Great teams also have to go through bad moments, but Juventus are Juventus. We know they're a very big club, one of the best teams in Europe. Although they have been going through tough times, it all changes now – on the pitch it's 11 against 11."
Juventus might be dominating the short-term thinking of Ajax, but their coach also has an eye on the bigger picture as he plots a course into the UEFA Champions League group stage for the first time since 2005/06. "No matter the situation, our goal at Ajax is to be the best in Holland," Jol said. "That is almost a cliche because we have only been champions twice in the last ten years. You don't only want to be champions of Holland but you also need to get into the Champions League – that's the ultimate goal. In the last five or six years it hasn't been the case and it's a craving for Ajax fans – and we have many around the world – to get back to that level."
Jol acknowledges the rebuilding work represents a steep challenge but is confident he and his squad can bring the glory days back to Amsterdam. "If we get three or four more players we can be the best club, especially in Holland. At Ajax, as in the past, we want players from our academy. Luckily we have many good young players but at other clubs they aren't sitting still either. At PSV they don't have that philosophy; there they have some older players and Twente came second last year and reached the Champions League. Everybody at Ajax is longing for a prize but we are realistic. I still think we are the club with the most possibilities; it is no problem for us to attract players, but the finances aren't there right now, so we'll have to wait."
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