Europa League ambitions on the line as improving Ajax host Brighton

Two wins in a week have lifted spirits in Amsterdam but confidence remains fragile

Ajax forward Chuba Akpom celebrates after scoring his team's third goal against Heerenveen on Sunday. AFP
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Premier League side Brighton visit Ajax on Thursday for a key Europa League group game that will provide a litmus test for the troubled Amsterdam club's mini revival.

The Seagulls were routine winners when the sides met two weeks ago at the Amex Stadium on England’s south coast, Ajax's 2-0 defeat coming just days after the Dutch giants had relieved beleaguered coach Maurice Steijn of his duties.

A 5-2 trouncing by bitter rivals PSV Eindhoven swiftly followed, sending Ajax to the foot of the Eredivisie after losing five league games in a row for the first time in their history, and hastening the appointment of former player John van't Schip as Steijn’s successor.

The former winger, a popular figure from the teams of the 1980s and 90s, has so far said all the right things, namely that they must get back to playing in the style of an Ajax team and that unity is essential if the season is to be salvaged in any meaningful way.

“I can’t assess how things were before my arrival, but we want to train and play in a different way,” Van't Schip said last week. “With high intensity, pressing quickly and winning the ball back. These may sound like cliches but they are part of the Ajax style.”

Two victories, albeit in kind domestic fixtures against Volendam and Heerenveen, have certainly lifted the mood. Summer signing Chuba Akpom, previously without a goal in eight matches, scored three times across both games and spoke candidly about the change in atmosphere since Van’t Schip’s arrival.

"I've been in a hotel room by myself, I've not been playing, and I have kind of felt like I'm alone here, but this week I have felt back to my normal self in my apartment,” said the former Arsenal and Middlesbrough striker. “The manager came and spoke to me straight away, on a human level, and asked how I am and how is my family.

"We are footballers but we are human beings firstly, and I appreciated that chat I had with the manager and the assistant, and when I left that meeting I felt happy and felt like I could get back to work. So, it's been an amazing week for all of us. That human level was not there at all before that, to be honest.”

In Amsterdam there is still much anger towards the club’s board, who plunged the four-time European champions into crisis through a series of catastrophic appointments and a ruinous recruitment strategy. However, the need for results is immediate and has focused minds.

Ajax’s nightmare start to the season extended to their Europa League campaign and they will kick off Thursday's game at the Johan Cruyff Arena at the foot of Group B. Qualification is still possible, but only with a positive result against Roberto De Zerbi’s side.

"[This] match will be different than when we played Brighton away,” said Van't Schip. "I can understand we played defensively then, but now we need more offensive football. That's what we plan to do tomorrow."

Brighton have fared only slightly better than Ajax in Group B – they are third behind leaders Marseille and AEK Athens – but are determined to make their first season in European competition a memorable one.

De Zerbi, who led them to a sixth-place finish in last season's Premier League, said: “We play another very important game on Thursday in Amsterdam and we want to win. It is very important, that game.

“But we want to compete in the Premier League. We have to be stronger than last season. This season is different and I think we are fighting in a good way.”

Updated: November 09, 2023, 3:43 PM