Thursday, February 1, 2007

Ajax... Fifteen Years Ago: February 1992

by Menno Pot

Knowing that PSV dropped one point against Roda in Kerkrade on Friday evening (0-0), Ajax prepare for their Sunday afternoon home game against FC Groningen (02 February), who are no longer the unbeatable side they were last season, but still 6th in the league and an opponent to take very seriously. PSV have 37 points out of 23 games. Ajax have 32 out of 22 and want revenge for last week's rather clumsy 2-2 draw at RKC.

Stefan Pettersson is slightly injured, so that John van Loen plays from the start for the first time since November. The match is a frustrating one. Ajax try everything and Van Loen works hard as always, but Pettersson's intelligence is missed and Ajax can't find the opening: 0-0. The Amsterdammers fail to close in on PSV. The gap remains four points, with eleven games left to play.

Next up: the second clash with PSV at the Olympic Stadium in three weeks' time. Last month Ajax won for the league (1-0). What will happen on Sunday 09 February, in the fourth round of the KNVB Cup? One thing's for sure: Ajax will have a 'Flying Dutchman' between the posts. Goalkeeper Stanley Menzo obtains his pilot's licence on 07 February. A footballer 'getting his wings'... that's something special. It makes Menzo hot news in Holland for a few days.

The old 'Olympic' is almost sold-out (but not completely) for the cup confrontation, in which Stefan Pettersson returns to the starting eleven. He scores almost immediately: the Swede gives Ajax the lead after 18 minutes. PSV don't want to lose again, replace the totally useless Romario after only 23 minutes (!) and pull their bajonets out, turning the match into a particularly unfriendly one compared to the 19 January edition. Three PSV players and three Ajacieden are booked by referee Mario van der Ende. Just before the half-time break PSV's opportunism is succesful: a dry header from Wim Kieft and the score is level.

No goals are scored in the second half and the game pulls into 30 minutes of extra time. It's been an exhausting fight and Ajax coach Louis van Gaal acknowledges that it might be a crucial advantage that he can still replace two players, whereas PSV have already used up their substitutions. They are now without Romario and Ronald Koeman, and Van Gaal decided to take some risk. The Ajax boss brings on John van Loen and Ron Willems, two 'battering rams'. Ajax now play with Pettersson and Van Loen upfront - and Bergkamp and Willems directly behind them. An ultra-offensive formation, but Van Gaal is rewarded for his boldness. After 117 minutes of football John van Loen slams the winner past Hans van Breukelen: 2-1 after extra time - and Ajax are in the quarter final, to be played on 08 March against... Feyenoord!

Match winner John van Loen (second from the left) is the central figure in the
celebrations after Ajax's cup triumph over PSV: 2-1 after extra time.

On Monday evening, 10 February, the entire Ajax squad attends the annual Player Of The Year gala. For the second straight year the trophy goes to... Dennis Bergkamp, Ajax's superstar, who promised his club and his fans that he will stay at De Meer for at least another season.

Sunday 16 February. Ajax visit De Graafschap in Doetinchem for the first time since March 1982 and there's a fair chance that the next edition will not be next season: De Graafschap are 17th and seem to be on their way back to the First Division. Nevertheless, Ajax have a remarkably hard time at Vijverberg Stadium. De Graafschap are physically strong, play opportunistically and lose somewhat unfortunately, thanks to a single goal by Stefan Pettersson in the 38th minute. Not very impressive, to say the least. PSV did a better job on Saturday evening: 4-0 against another relegation candidate, VVV fom Venlo.

Most news paper reports on Monday are not about the match, but about the half-time substitution of Bryan Roy and, more than anything, Louis van Gaal's absolutely merciless criticism of the left winger after the game. Ineffective. Tactically not intelligent enough. Fickle. Inconsistent. In no uncertain terms the Ajax boss makes clear that Roy is out of favour. It is the week of the left winger's 22nd birthday. Van Gaal's words hit him like a hammer.

The world of football is a commercial one these days. Sometimes lucrative friendly matches will be added to the agenda against the will of head-coaches and players. Ajax's midweek trip to the Italian town of Catania is a perfect example. Ajax play the local Serie B outfit at Cibali Stadium - and lose 2-0, on two goals by striker Loriano Cipriani. And back to The Netherlands they go. What a waste of time and energy... The only upside: Van Gaal got to see some of his reserves in action, such as Rob Alflen, Dan Petersen, Alfons Groenendijk and youngsters Jeffrey van As and Edgar Davids, who starts on the left wing... instead of Bryan Roy, who sees no action.

Against FC Utrecht, who visit De Meer on Sunday 23 February, Roy starts on the bench as Louis van Gaal comes up with an unusual forward line: John van 't Schip plays as a right midfielder (the position he demanded in vain earlier this season), Dennis Bergkamp returns to his old position of right winger as - of all people - John van Loen starts on the left wing (!), an unlikely position for the tall striker, who is not exactly known for his wonderful moves or crosses. Will he really be a better left winger than Bryan Roy...?

Stefan Pettersson, match winner against FC Utrecht in De Meer on
23 February 1992, attempts a spectacular 'bicycle kick'.

The most remarkable thing about Ajax vs FC Utrecht is not the fact that Ajax book a hard-fought win (1-0) or the fact that the only goal is scored by Stefan Pettersson (who is on fire these days), but the fact that Dennis Bergkamp - known as a stylish artist and a gentleman in football - picks up two yellow cards, including one for a pretty violent tackle. Dennis Bergkamp... sent off? Frustration? Fact is that Bergkamp's form in recent weeks has not been great. 14,000 people at De Meer can feel the pain of Bryan Roy when is brought on for Stefan Pettersson on the hour. How humiliating. PSV, meanwhile, book a very, very hard-fought and extremely fortunate road win at small-timers SVV (1-2). Their four point lead (41 out of 25, versus Ajax's 37 out of 25) remains intact, but Ajax are following...

Ouch... Slagged off by Louis van Gaal one week earlier, Bryan Roy does not look happy
as he prepares for an appearance as a substitute against FC Utrecht.

On Wednesday evening, 26 February, Ajax find themselves in Sittard, for the away game at Fortuna, a fixture was originally planned for Sunday 08 March. Complicated story: the KNVB Cup quarter final between Feyenoord and Ajax was originally scheduled on a Wednesday evening, but the mayor of Rotterdam and the Dutch Railways vetoed a midweek 'Classic' in the evening hours. The cup cracker was therefore re-scheduled to Sunday 08 March, and the league fixture scheduled for that date made a couple of weeks earlier.

Ajax start with the same remarkable forward line as last weekend, against Utrecht: Bergkamp (eligible as the disciplinary committee of the KNVB will deal with his case on Friday), Pettersson and 'left winger' John van Loen. It would be a little simplistic to blame it all on that unusual forward line, but fact is that Ajax are struggling - and have been for a number of weeks now. Fortuna, the Eredivisie's modest #15, remain upright with ease and actually have their chances. Ajax leave the 'deep south' with two points after all, thanks to a 73rd minute goal from John van 't Schip, his first as a midfielder. Ajax close in on PSV and now have 39 points out of 26 games. PSV have 41 and, obviously, a game in hand.

Two days later Dennis Bergkamp is suspended for one game. He will miss the tough Sunday 01 March away fixture at FC Groningen. February 1992 was a month in which he lifted the Player Of The Year Award, but also a month in which he did not score a goal and only drew attention by picking up a red card. Ajax's last five league games were everything but convincing: two draws and three wins by a single goal. Everybody can see that Ajax's form is not great at the moment. This will have to improve with the much anticipated return of European football to the Olympic Stadium looming at the horizon... The UEFA Cup quarter finals against AA Ghent are coming closer. (MP)

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