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  • Writer's pictureHead Scout

Men Against Boysh

Aston Villa 4-0 Ajax (UEFA Europa Conference League Round of 16)

Johnny van’t Schip was one of my favourite overseas players when I was nine or ten years old. I think there was something about his name? Then he did play for the greatest Dutch side in my lifetime. The Netherlands team of 1988 still rolls off the tongue… van Breukelin, van Aerle, van Tiggelen, Koeman, Wouters, Rijkaard, Vanenburg, Murhen, van Basten, Gullit, van’t Schip… That’s my team (and one which I didn’t even need to google to jog my memory)… Unfortunately, the current Ajax ‘interim’ Head Coach was the only name in that list omitted from the Euro 88 final as Erwin Koeman instead, played down the left in the 2-0 win against USSR. He was however an integral part of that squad and one of only 22 players (Cruyff, Bergkamp, Sneijder, van Dijk etc all omitted) to win his nation major international silverware.

Ajax have had it tough this year, they hovered dangerously above the drop zone under Hedwiges Maduro before van’t Schip took charge in October and the former Ajax star himself, a player of over 300 appearances winning four Dutch titles between 1980-90, has since risen ‘his’ team up the league table towards some parity, currently fifth but someway behind leaders PSV, they won’t win the title, and probably won’t even get near to second where Feyenoord of Rotterdam sit, themselves 19 points ahead of their Amsterdam based rivals from an hour up north in the lowlands.

I’ll admit I had to do some research ‘why’ Ajax have been so bad. A club that in recent years reached the semi-finals of the Champions League with the likes of Antony, Donny van der Beek and Frankie de Jong, but one that year after year is forced to sell their best academy assets for huge capital appreciation. They still have an unbelievable youth set up and as I write down the names of their squad members on Thursday morning, I notice the age of the players is ridiculously low. Take Borna Sosa and Jordan Henderson out of the side that drew 0-0 with Aston Villa in the first leg of this competition last week, and the eldest of the rest of the XI is only 22.

Because of that, I’m excited to see the latest conveyor belt of Dutch footballing talent tonight, I’ve had to switch off ITV’s coverage of Cheltenham to iron my jeans and put on my flat cap, head out the door of my Nottingham home, I’m filling up in Ruddington before hitting the speed humps of Clifton and cruising down the A453 past Ratcliffe on Soar power station, onto the M1, briefly, before crossing East to West down the M42 and finally, after a bit of traffic at Tamworth, hitting the M6 and coming off at Spaghetti Junction down the A38 and towards Aston station as I look for somewhere near an industrial area to park.

The Venue

I’m on UEFA duty tonight. That means I’ve got to find my accreditation somewhere in the stadium but ask any one who works here and they haven’t a clue. I’ve walked up the Witton Lane and past the Holte Pub onto Trinity Road, Aston Park to my left, the fabulous steps to the Holte End on my right. Under the huge stand in front, I’m looking for some glass doors marked North Stand reception, as I’m pointed right around the ground, I’ve still someway to go. The place is just huge.

Finally I’m here, squeezing through a car park clipping wing mirrors with my lap top bag, the back of the stands daunting in size as the sky darkens above, growing foot traffic, there's still a good hour and half before kick off, you sense there’s real excitement in the air tonight. Villa are back, they’ve played in Europe this season of course, but this is a proper big tie. Two real traditional European names that have iconic football history.

Finally I’m at the door of the North Stand, I’m told to go to another door, who's gating steward then tells me to go to another door. I’m eventually sent to the press lounge where my bag is checked and I’m given a wristband, before being told I need to go back to the doors where I started.

Luckily I have a phone, so instead use that device to meet someone outside the North Stand reception, we then travel to an entrance near the turnstile of the Witton Lane Stand, a quick check of our badges by a friendly steward and up the lift to level two, we are walking up the steps of the stadium, past a load of coppers in a line, Ajax fans to our left, then up the gantry to the commentators position, stretching the length of the pitch we have choice of desks on the half way, high up with a birds eye view, the ground below stunning as the rain falls heavily, as you look down and get vertigo you can see the touchline under your feet.

The Game

There’s a light show as Aston Villa fans give a resounding edition of Hi Ho Silver Lining, there’s fireworks going off on the roof of the stand opposite and smoke everywhere. I turn to my colleague and say “it’s the round of sixteen, not the final” but it’s a great atmosphere and feels like a really special occasion, I’m hoping the game will produce the goods.

The start is sceptical, each side sniffing out each others danger players, an air of caution as the away side strut their passes with Jordan Henderson, booed everytime he touches the ball. But Villa grow in the game, their first sniff of danger is when Diaby gets in, he rounds the keeper who blocks his attempt from the angle, first corner is swung in by Douglas Luiz and straight on the head of Ollie Watkins who is unmarked, the Holte End roars and the home side have the lead in the tie.

Watkins, who's been hobbling earlier is shortly after substituted with a knee injury. It’s been a stop start first half as an Ajax player, Kaplan is also replaced, injured. At half time we check the other results in Europe, both West Ham and Liverpool have scored five goals each, perhaps we are at the wrong game? At least we have a pack of fox's crunch biscuits to munch on.

The Score

Ajax have to go for it in the second half but in truth they offer little threat. Villa winger Leon Bailey has been threatening all night, he plays a neat one-two with Luiz and suddenly he’s through, calm and composed he drills in low and puts the home side two up, it seems it’s going to be Villa’s night.

That is further emphasised as Ajax leave themselves short, they have another player off injured as they delay making a substitute and already reduced to ten, centre midfielder Mannsverk is last man, he’s pulled back Duran through on goal and is given his marching orders, a second yellow for him, the away fans start to sing Bob Marley’s ‘Don’t worry’.

It’s past the worrying stage though, Ajax by now have nine on the pitch, before finally getting their latest sub on, they are toothless and offer very little threat, Villa’s dominance surges when Duran crashes one in off the crossbar, a thunderous shot that bounces ‘just’ over the line, that leads to another opposition player going down. The hosts lead further stretched when Diaby runs through, given too much space out right by the poor Borna Sosa who’s had one of those nights, perhaps he should have feigned injury to get out of chasing back Bailey and alike all night?

On 90 minutes exactly the Referee blows for full time, not one to inflict further pain of Ajax it’s a sensible solution to finish a game already well won, the fans re-enact their earlier rendition of Hi Ho Silver Lining, plenty of cheers and celebrations on a memorable night finished with a touch of Sweet Caroline. Villa Park a special place, Aston Villa under Unai Emery, a special club.

The Stars

My first ever viewing of Pau Torres, a Spanish International who I know Aston Villa fans have been raving about, and my eyes were instantaneously drawn to his elegance and his reading of the game, in car terms he looked like a Rolls Royce, stylish and smooth, deciding when to drop deep, when to go in for the press, and was a calming influence on the rest of his side, an easier nights work for him perhaps, or he simply made things look easy, but he certainly did the things you don’t notice, better than anyone else on the pitch.

Leon Bailey was a constant threat down the right with speed and intention ‘always’ to take on his man, but player for player, the home side were very good. McGinn in midfield, Cash at right back, the whole lot played really well.

In truth, I was hugely disappointed with Ajax, the stars I had selected pre-match, doing little to fulfil me with confidence for their future, a long way off Premier League class, Brian Brobbey is an unfashionable striker who I like the look of, but nothing more than a Dutch Britt Assombalonga, think of all the good number nines Ajax have had over the years… van Basten, Suarez, Ibrahimovic, and he’s certainly not in the same league of elegance, but he has a certain way, a physique built for power, he actually has a lot of goals this season but is more likely to bobble one in off his shin, then chip in off the bar from 30 yards, although the old saying says, they all count the same.

Kenneth Taylor from what I’ve seen is a player who can do that. He scored a cracker at the weekend in a 2-2 draw against Fortuna Sittard but was non-existent tonight. Hugely disappointing from him, as was Sivert Mannsverk who was sent off, but probably looked like Ajax’s best player with the ball at his feet.

As for Jordan Henderson, selected in the latest England squad I wanted him to do well, to prove the doubters wrong, he did ok, but the scoreline won’t do him any favours. The jury on whether Gareth Southgate has done the right thing in ‘again’ choosing him to play whilst long past his sell by date, will probably be at a majority verdict non-favourable, and he certainly doesn’t merit being chosen after that.

The Verdict

Villa are favourites and could go on to win this competition, they also have the added bonus that it’s very likely five teams from England will be in the UEFA Champions League next season. They do however have an issue after Ollie Watkins limped off, hopefully it’s nothing too serious for the England international and he still has a major part to play for the remainder of the season.

Ajax themselves have a lot of work to do, but nothing a couple of inspired, experienced signings wouldn’t put right. What they would do for the like of a Dusan Tadic right now, they need a playmaker, a number ten, someone to take on responsibility. Christian Eriksson in the summer for a homecoming perhaps?

They’ll probably finish third or fourth in the Dutch league and evade disaster following their awful start, they know their place in European football right now, which is sadly not elite, but the faith I have in the model, is that Ajax will be back, one day, and as a football purist I long to see the day they conquer Europe again.

The Teams

Aston Villa: Emiliano Martinez, Matty Cash, Diego Carlos (Clement Lenglet 74), Pau Torres, Alex Moreno, Morgan Rogers (Youri Tielemans 46), John McGinn, Douglas Luiz (Omari Kellyman 83), Moussa Diaby, Leon Bailey (Tim Iroegbulam 74), Ollie Watkins (Jhon Duran 33).

Ajax: Diant Ramaj, Devyne Rensch (Benjamin Tahirovic 79), Ahmetcan Kaplan (Chuba Akpom 39), Jorrel Hato, Josip Sutalo (Anton Gaaei 69), Jordan Henderson, Sivert Mannsverk, Borna Sosa, Kristian Hlynsson, Brian Brobbey, Kenneth Taylor.

8:00pm Kick Off. Thursday 14th March 2024, Villa Park, Birmingham (att 37,916).

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