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Fans not blind to Ajax weaknesses

AFC Ajax's qualification for the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds has failed to quell fans' concerns about the side's weaknesses.

Timely substitution
Substitute Nigel de Jong's introduction in the second half of a tense match at the Amsterdam ArenA gave Ajax the verve to finally dispense with the Czech champions in Group B. However, with tougher opponents to come in the last 16, Blind's young hopefuls need to prove they can raise their game.

Young talent
As usual, the Ajax side is peppered with homegrown talent. The 21-year-old Wesley Sneijder is a fixture in the national team and recently extended his contract with the club until 2009, but 20-year-old midfielder Hedwiges Maduro and 18-year-old Ryan Babel are the bright new stars.

Impressive Emanuelson
Another youngster making good progress is 19-year-old left-back Urby Emanuelson who was named man of the match against Sparta. He does not lack faith in himself, saying after the game: "I'm not surprised I can compete at this level. I have played a lot of games this season, and my confidence is growing."

Ajax way
An academy product, Emanuelson has been infused with the Ajax belief in attacking football. "We find it natural to go forward and take every available opportunity to do so," he said. "I found Sparta's tactics a bit strange, because they needed points as well yet played so deep."

Old head
However, for all the teenage talent, there is still unease among supporters, who claim certain problems are coming to roost. For many, the team still lacks an experienced leader who can take control of a game, as well as a prolific scorer to give concrete shape to a changeable forward line.

Striking talisman
Summer signing Markus Rosenberg was seen as a potential successor to his talismanic compatriot Zlatan Ibrahimovic, yet began on the bench against Sparta. "I was surprised I wasn't in the starting lineup after scoring at the weekend [against FC Twente], and I'm disappointed," he said.

Expiring contracts
Perhaps more worryingly, the contracts of many of Ajax's better players - Steven Pienaar, Hatem Trabelsi, Tomáš Galásek and De Jong - expire next summer, and few are certain that any will be keen to stay. Moreover, the club cannot always count on its legendary youth system to discover adequate replacements.

Scouting misses
Ibrahim Afellay and Ismaïl Aisatti, the teenage midfield sensations who helped PSV Eindhoven defeat AC Milan on Matchday 4, both grew up considerably closer to Amsterdam than Eindhoven, but slipped through the once watertight scouting net.

'Enjoyable occasion'
Nonetheless, Emanuelson is looking forward to the immediate future. "Our next UEFA Champions League game, away to Arsenal, will be very enjoyable," he said. "The atmosphere should be great in such a famous stadium, and we have both qualified, so we can concentrate on making it an enjoyable occasion."

Sterner test ahead
With the pressure off, the Ajax players should take the opportunity to make the most of their Highbury trip, because the UEFA Champions League knockout stages will bring an even sterner examination of their credentials.