Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The European Champions Cup produced Italian – Dutch final. The Cup holders of 1971 Ajax were to meet Inter (Milan) at Rotterdam, somewhat an advantage for Ajax, but not exactly home turf. Inter, still with mighty image built in the 1960s, eliminated Standard (Liege) in the ¼ finals thanks to away goal – home win 1-0 and 1-2 loss in Belgium. The semi-final was scoreless: neither the Italians, nor their opponents Celtic (Glasgow) managed to outwit the other team and after two 0-0 ties penalty shoot-out promoted Inter. The drama ended 5-4 in their favour. It is hard to say were Inter good or bad – in general, Italian clubs were defensively obsessed misers even when facing insignificant teams. It was as likely giant club like Inter to eliminate nobodies, say from Luxemburg, by 1-0 at home and 0-0 tie away, as a lowly Italian club to eliminate by the same results some strong British or German opposition. Even when the Italians were obvious favourites they just shut down the game, happy to lead by a goal and patiently preserving strength for other games. To see them at the final was not surprising at all, but expected and hardly commented.

Ajax on the other hand was commented: reaching the final again needed reevaluation of their success in 1971: not one time wonder, seemingly, so attention was paid on their progress. The results were not so impressive as numbers: they eliminated Arsenal (London) in the ¼ finals winning both legs – 2-1 in Amsterdam and 1-0 in London. Benfica (Lisbon) faced Ajax in the ½ finals and the Dutch won by 1-0 in Amsterdam and 0-0 in the second leg. The poor results were not so poor at close glance: Benfica was not exactly easy pray – they met Feyenoord (Rotterdam) in the ¼ finals and after losing 0-1 away, thrashed the Dutch champions 5-1 in Lisbon. Ajax, merely second in Holland’s !970-71 championship, did much better than their domestic archrivals. But it was the ¼ final against Arsenal which counted more. According to many Dutch players, Cruiff included, prevailing over British club was crucial – they said they respected and feared the English football, growing up watching the Brits on TV, and admiring them as superior. Eliminating Arsenal was more than success, said the Ajax players – it was these two matches which brought them real confidence and conviction that they are really strong and good. It was a turning point – from been a merely good team into a mighty one, which has no fear of any opponent whatsoever, believing to be superior no matter who they were to play against.

Playing against Arsenal (in dark jerseys) really boosted Ajax. For them, these were the most important wins.

Although Benfica was coached by English coach – Jimmy Hagan – Ajax did not even blink: after Arsenal, there was no club in the world to beat them, they felt. Ajax felt they were unstoppable and unbeatable.