x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Van Basten's days a distant memory for Ajax

Ajax's youth products a thing of the past as Aston Villa show tonight's rivals the way in bringing in young talent.

Marco Van Basten in action against Scotland, an all-time great for Ajax.
Marco Van Basten in action against Scotland, an all-time great for Ajax.

In April 1982, a 17-year-old from Utrecht became one of many teenagers to be granted a rapid elevation to the Ajax first team. He was Marco van Basten, the greatest striker of his generation. The following month a rather burlier forward, Peter Withe, defeated Bayern Munich to make Aston Villa the champions of Europe. Aston Villa and Ajax meet tonight, linked in two respects. Both European Cup winners, they have a shared commitment to developing young players. Johan Cruyff apart, Ajax's youth system has produced no greater talent than Van Basten, their current manager. Villa, meanwhile, have emerged as credible challengers to England's "Big Four" because of their faith in emerging talent.

In Ashley Young, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Curtis Davies, they have appropriated the Ajax blueprint. So their encounter tonight should be that rarity, an unmissable Uefa Cup tie. The competition can be a melting pot of mediocrity, but occasionally it produces a game to capture the imagination. As the Villa goalkeeper Brad Friedel said: "This year, for some reason, when you saw the teams in the Uefa Cup, it mirrors some Champions League fixtures.The likes of AC Milan, Valencia, Sevilla and then in our group, Hamburg and Ajax. They have both won the competition and play in the Champions League often."

Ajax have played there rather less frequently recently. They conquered Europe in 1995 with a team who were almost entirely homegrown, but the Bosman Ruling brought a premature halt to their rise, and may have rendered a fifth European Cup impossible. Now they are ninth in the Dutch league and, like Villa, are as willing to purchase budding talent as they are to develop it. The ?16.25million (Dh77m) Serbian striker Miralem Sulejmani is Ajax's record signing and only 19. Yet when Villa spent £9.6m (Dh58m) on Ashley Young, it appeared excessive. Now it seems a far-sighted decision from Martin O'Neill, the second European Cup winner in the dugout.

When the commentary of Withe's winner is displayed on a banner draped across Villa Park's North Stand, the past is unforgettable, but these are two clubs who have made an investment in the future. rjolly@thenational.ae