Wednesday, September 15, 2010

European Champions Cup started with surprise – the elimination of Juventus by Dynamo Dresden – but the real shock was yet to come. Ajax did not play at the 1/16 finals, benefiting from a bye. In the 1/8 finals they met CSKA Sofia – the Bulgarian champions comfortably qualifying after two wins (3-0 and 1-0) against Swarovski Wacker (Innsbruck). The 1/8 final opponents were familiar to each other – it was a repetition of the fixture a year before. Ajax walked over CSKA in the fall of 1972 and the same was expected to happen again. Both teams featured little changes: Ajax was without Cruiff and coach Kovacs, who moved to Spain and France. True to their policy, the Dutch did not spend money on big replacement: unknown Dutch coach was hired – George Knobel – and two foreign players – the German Arno Steffenhagen and the stateless Hungarian Zoltan Varga. Both were involved in the West German bribing scandal and after penalties and tainted reputations they were cheap. Neither was considered a starter, but Knobel taught and said that Jan Mulder, finally healthy, would be enough replacement of Cruiff. The Bulgarians also maintained the old squad – they got two new players: the central defenseman of just relegated Volov (Shumen) Tzonyo Vassilev and centre forward from Second Division’s Velbazhd (Kyustendil) Stefan Mikhailov. Vassilev replaced Gaganelov, who retired, as left full back – and quickly established himself and was included in the national team. Mikhailov was taught to be mostly a substitute for aging goalscorer Petar Zhekov. Just like Ajax, CSKA made insignificant changes, and was considered weaker for that – if Ajax maintained a squad of world famous stars, the Bulgarians were aging team, already beyond their peak. Solid team, but one year older and no longer capable of changing their style. Some players were obviously on decline, like the right winger Tzvetan Atanassov. It looked like another easy win for Ajax. It was not. The first leg in Amsterdam showed the Dutch painfully struggling to win, missing a penalty, and playing frustrated dirty physical football. CSKA were no better than before, but Ajax were a pale shadow of themselves. Jan Mulder distinguished himself by breaking the arm of CSKA’s goalkeeper Stoyan Yordanov. Total football was gone just three months after beating Juventus at the European Champions Cup final. It was unbelievable: Ajax, even without Cruiff, were expected to rule European football for many years to come. Instead, they barely won 1-0 against pedestrian CSKA at home. The second leg in Sofia was more of the same – tough and rough, but otherwise clueless Ajax.
Dimitar Penev and Piet Keizer lead their teammates and soon the fatal match in Sofia will start.
CSKA effectively neutralized the Dutch, yet had great difficulties in attack – Ajax still played strong defense.
Petar Zhekov, getting old and heavy, was tightly marked by Barry Hulshoff. The Bulgarian goal-scoring genius did not score… but Hulshoff did not score either: not long ago Hulshoff’s attacks were deadly. Now he spent his time… defending. A lot of physicality, but little football – even on a random photo the match looks tough – but ugly struggle.
But eventually the Bulgarians scored after a clumsy looking header by their left winger Marashliev.
Marashliev’s header. Stuy can’t do anything – 1-0 CSKA.
Regular time ended with this result and over time started to break the aggregate tie. The tempo slowed down, clearly telling of Ajax’s deep trouble – they were not supposed to be unfit. They were not supposed to be defending either, but they were defending. In 107th minute CSKA made a change – Tzvetan Atanassov was replaced by new boy Stefan Mikhailov. Nine minutes later the unknown striker got the ball and shoot – it was tremendous kick, more a result of will power than ability. The ball was on target and no goalie in the world would have been able to stop it – it was fantastic kick. Mikhailov’s tremendous kick – CSKA 2 – Ajax 0. Hulshoff signals off-side. The Dutch were so bad, they asked for off-side in practically every Bulgarian attack – hoping to fool the referees. Hulshoff’s call was ignored…
In a few minutes there was no more Ajax. CSKA went ahead and Ajax sunk into insignificance for the next 10 years. It was huge collapse… one still difficult to fully understand: Cruyff was a genius for sure, but he was not alone in Ajax so his absence to be fatal – unlike many a great team, the Dutch had a squad of world-class stars. CSKA was not better team than the one losing from Ajax the year before – if anything, it was slightly over the hill team, not improving one. So it was something wrong going on in Amsterdam – the name is Knobel. The coach tried to change the playing style of Ajax – something his Romanian predecessor wisely never attempted – which alienated the players. They felt restricted to keep more traditional positions, which practically shackled them. Flamboyance, creativity, and improvisation were gone. Knobel believed Jan Mulder would be equal to Cruyff – and this speaks volumes, for Mulder was lightning years away from Cruyff’s style and talent. If anything, Mulder prevented Repp from coming at the front of the attack – in Knobel’s ‘vision’, Repp was to be classic right winger, something he was not at all. Ajax collapsed like a tower of cards… (and going ahead a bit: Knobel did not last as coach – he was fired in 1975, and hired as… Holland’s national team coach. Rewarded for what?)
Stefan Mikhailov instantly became CSKA legend – he will be forever remembered as the destroyer of mighty Ajax. Alas, that was all for him – he lingered three years in CSKA, mostly as a substitute. Played twice for the Bulgarian national team. Coming from obscurity, he quickly returned to it – released from CSKA in 1975, he went back to his original club in the Second Division and nobody heard of him again. He finished his career in 1980, playing for Velbazhd (Kyustendil). A one-minute hero, but lucky one, for he scored the goal ending the reign of perhaps the most revered team in football history.
CSKA’s squad destroying Ajax.