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Feb 16, 2010

European heavyweights meet again

While the Champions League takes centre stage this week with the ever enticing first knockout round, arguably the biggest fixture of all is scheduled in the backwaters of Thursday night's Europa League.

Ajax vs. Juventus has been played out as a European Cup final as well as a Champions League final, and the sound of the fixture may well have the same effect on the ears of lovers of football history as the Madeleine cake in the mouth of Marcel Proust.

Back in their minds come the early seventies and mid-nineties, when these teams played each other twice for the top prize in European club football. But as both have fallen on hard times recently, it may be more interesting to review their glory years than to preview the relatively low key encounter that awaits the unsuspecting punters in the Amsterdam Arena this week.

Their first major collision was in 1973. For Ajax it was their fourth final in five years and the third with Italian opposition. The year before Internazionale had failed in their catenaccio style from the kick-off, making it the most one-sided finale until AC Milan slaughtered Steaua Bucharest in 1989.

In the final in Belgrado the following year, Ajax started with the same team except for Johnny Rep, who had taken Sjaak Swart's position. Juventus had just won their second Italian title in a row, when they leapfrogged Milan on the final day of the calcio season.

Brimming with confidence one would think. Their team was a mix of old - Sandro Salvadore and Jose Altafini - and young with Franco Causio, Roberto Bettega and Fabio Capello. In goal it was the first season of Dino Zoff at Juve. They would rule the Italian football in the mid-seventies. But not this final.

Intimidated by an early goal from Rep, Juventus never got into the game. Had the Italians thrown caution to the wind and increased the pressure on the Dutch side, they might not have ended up empty handed; because all was not well at Ajax.

The quarter-final against Bayern Munich had revealed a rift between Johan Cruyff and several team-mates. After the 4-0 home win the return leg seemed unimportant. Cruyff used the excuse of a minor injury to stay home, but the others felt betrayed. The Ajax board urged him to join the squad in a telegram, but he never showed up.

While Cruyff had a feature film, several commercial gigs and his face in all the media, his season was mediocre. His absence in Germany then made his team-mates wonder aloud whether they could do without him. After that game most of the team spirit was gone and they did not have a coach to fix it.

Romanian Stefan Kovacs had lost the dressing room earlier in the season when he did not dare to tell Swart he would lose his place to Rep. From then on he just let the players do their thing, while he waited for his contract to end. Therefore no-one was effectively in charge.

When the Spanish league announced the opening of its borders to foreign players at the start of the new season, the writing was on the wall. Immediately, Barcelona announced an interest in Cruyff, while Real Madrid courted Rep and Johan Neeskens. It led to more troubles within the squad, where some feared being left in an ailing team in Amsterdam, earning considerably less than their team-mates. They felt unappreciated.

Not a happy crowd therefore in Belgrado, where Ajax were to play the European Cup final. In a desperate attempt to raise the spirits the board had invited the players' wives and girlfriends to reside in the same hotel in the city centre. While the women spent some quality time in bikinis by the swimming pool, football and press agents swarmed the lounge looking for contacts and stories.

The preparations could not have gone worse, but the team was still professional enough to grind out a result on the pitch.

Five minutes of good football was enough for Ajax to take the lead, a header by Rep, after which they changed down a gear with a clean sheet as their only goal, sealed the win. On the night, Juventus never managed to put real pressure on the Ajax defence. That just was not their style. Maybe a more attacking and opportunistic opponent could have taken Ajax to the wire and cracked them.

A few months later Cruyff left for Catalunya, while CSKA Sofia would end Ajax's reign in Europe in October.

In 1996 Ajax and Juve met again, in the Champions League final in Rome. Ajax had been magnificent until their Intercontinental Cup win in Tokyo in December, then tiredness had set in.

For their final triumph against AC Milan the previous year, Ajax could call on Frank Rijkaard, Clarence Seedorf, Michael Reiziger and Marc Overmars, but all were missing in 1996. Meanwhile, Juventus had Alex Del Piero, Gianluca Vialli and Fabrizio Ravanelli as an impressive forward line.

After an early Ravanelli goal the Italians seemed to control the game, but suddenly before the break Jari Litmanen equalized. Juventus kept dominating but could not score a second. Ajax struggled to penalties when chances were even again. There they failed with two missed spot-kicks by Edgar Davids and Sonny Silooy.

A few weeks later, during Euro '96, tension surfaced between two groups of Ajax players, which may have simmered throughout the second half of that season. Some of the younger, black players were unhappy that there were huge differences in salaries at Ajax. They refused to sign new contracts and left on free transfers, thanks to the Bosman-ruling of the year before.

The team fell apart, but did manage to reach the semi-final of the Champions League yet again in 1997. There they met an even better Juventus, who had acquired Zinedine Zidane and Alen Boksic. Ajax were slaughtered over two games.

Afterwards it was proved that the Juventus players were a bit stronger that they should have been. The club doctor received a prison sentence for injecting EPO, an illegal substance to enhance the blood. Ajax officially asked UEFA to take the 1996 title away from the Italian club after this injustice, but they did not.

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