MIC Cup Semi-final
L’estartit – Another prime time showdown against one of the top youth academies in world football.
The Netherlands have produced countless world class players with Ajax being the conveyer belt. Johan Cruyff, Edwin van der Sar, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Kluivert, Marco Van Basten, Rafael van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder, and Nigel de Jong to name a few.
In 1995, when Ajax last won the Champions League, the team was almost entirely of players that came through their youth ranks – much like the current Barcelona. Edwin van der Sar in goal; Michael Reiziger, Frank de Boer (current head coach), and Danny Blind in defense; Ronald de Boer, Edgar Davids, and Clarence Seedorf in the midfield; with Patrick Kluivert and Marc Overmars in attack.
History lesson aside, it was an honor to test ourselves in competitive matches against possibly the top 2 youth academies in the world.
Ajax in MIC
Ajax had come through their group stage and round of 16 games with 39 goals scored, and 1 against in four matches. Their #9, the man child of the tournament, had bagged 20 of those goals. When I say man child, I mean physical specimen that looks like a man amongst boys. However, this player was much different to the big, fast, strong donkeys we encounter state-side on occasion. He has class!!! Technique to die for, and to top it off is left footed. Tall task for our back line to say the least.
We had done a great job of scouting them; and felt prepared to counter their strengths, and expose their weaknesses.
Their strength lies in their individual player technique and attacking prowess. They play a 3-4-3, but mostly emphasize the attacking portion of it. Meaning, they aggressively push numbers forward, putting 7 players on your half the field.
That being said, for the first time ever we would have to alter our playing style to get a positive result. Playing out of the back in our own half would be suicide against this machine.
Their weakness was their faulty defending on set pieces, as well as pushing numbers forward and leaving only two to three defenders in the back.
In a 3-4-3, if your wing backs aren’t covering the entirety of the field and transitioning back to cover the width, it spells big trouble. This is where we exposed Ajax last year in our friendly, and would do so again.
The game started with the high intensity expected from both sides. Very choppy back and forth game with possession soccer at a minimum due to the high press from both teams.
The first clear opportunity came 10 minutes in, when Xuxu (John Hilton) combined well with Owen and Romario on the right, stormed down the sideline and served a delicious cross which Uly lunged at with a diving header that went inches wide. The entire standing-room-only crowd released the typical EEEEEWWWWWWW, expecting to see the net shake with the games first goal.
It wouldn’t take long for the first explosion of the night to come.
Again, Hilton on the right creating havoc, serving it to Romario and Owen who could not finish the play. The ball was poked out to the edge of the 18 by the Ajax GK right to Lebron who calmly had a clean first touch to his lethal left foot and floated the ball far post with a delicate chip. The ball bounced off the inside of the post, off the defender on the goal line and in for the 1-0 lead. The stadium roared in approval as it was a anti-Ajax crowd.
Controversy struck again minutes later as the Ajax #9 blatantly ran over our 2 centerbacks at midfield, and play was waved on by the referee.
NO FOUL??? Seconds later, ball was crossed into our box and a driven shot taken from 8 yards out was blocked by our left back, Togo Nakamura. Ref blew his whistle and pointed to the spot!!! PENAL! WTF!?!?!
You can only imagine, for the second time against an elite power, the ref was making a crucial game-changing decision against us. Ajax’s other man child, their center back, stepped up and calmly equalized the game from the spot. 1-1.
The second half saw Ajax control the game for the first 15 minutes without creating any serious goal-scoring opportunities. The last 10 minutes of the game belonged to us as we poured forward looking for a game-winner to avoid pks.
Neymar had two clear cut chances off good combination play that he rocketed right at the keeper.
Owen Zaldivar hit a bomb from 25 yards out that the keeper put his fingertips to and deflected off the intersecting point of the post & cross bar.
John Hilton went on a late patented 70 yard mesmerizing run in the last gasps of the game and got held up just as he was ready to finish the play. A clear PENAL ignored by the center referee.
Final whistle blew and it was time for the dreaded lottery of PK’s.
First, let me note that at least half of the capacity crowd estimated at 500 rushed behind the goal where the pks would be taken.
I asked the ref if they were going to move them and he said no – as long as they were behind the rail (one foot behind the goal) there was nothing he could do. So the pk’s would go down in a hostile environment with the crowd being a huge participant – much like a professional game. BEAUTIFUL!
The first two pk’s from Ajax were complete class and left the coaching staff worried – scratching our heads with how composed their players were under this type of pressure.
Charly and Efra stepped up for us with quality finishes to tie it up at 2-2.
Their 3rd player looked nervous as he took the endless journey up to the spot from half field. Jesus read him like a book and dove to his left to make the crucial save.
John Hilton buried his to make it 3-2.
The pressure was on their #7. He stepped up and awed the crowd with a brilliant strike into the top right corner.
Leo Sepulveda, a new player in our line-up, stepped up like a veteran and slotted his pk to the left corner for a 4-3 lead.
The pressure was now on Ajax #17 who stepped up and rocketed a shot off the crossbar that bounced down, hit the goal line and bounced out!!! Referee blew the whistle signaling game was over.
That was it, we had defeated Ajax and knocked them out of MIC Cup. A historic event that not only had the players and staff in jubilation, but the local crowd that rushed the field to embrace the players. Tears of joy ran down the player’s faces. Another epic performance by this group of boys to prove their worth to the world.
Next up? Who else … the 800 pound gorilla would be waiting in the semis tomorrow morning.