Striker-less Ajax win ABN Amro Future Cup

It’s that time of the year again. Birds are out building nests, pollen are giving people hay fever and the Easter Bunny came around to drop some wildly coloured eggs in your back yard. And, as per every Easter weekend, the ABN Amro Future Cup was played out at De Toekomst.

For those of you that don’t know the Future Cup, it’s one of the most prestigious youth tourneys around for players under the age of 17; an annual event hosted by Ajax at De Toekomst. It came into existence in 2010 and has since featured squads by some premier football academies around the world, including sides like Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Benfica and Anderlecht. The tourney features 8 clubs, whom are split into two groups. The top two sides from the group stages proceed into the semi-finals, the winners then play a final to decide whom wins the cup.

The seven sides that featured at the 2017 Future Cup (other than of course Ajax) were Benfica, Juventus, Anderlecht, Bayern Munich, Arsenal, PSG and, representing the land of the rising sun, a J-League U17 selection. Group A consisted of Ajax, J-League, Benfica and Juventus whilst Anderlecht, Bayern, Arsenal and PSG made up Group B.

Ajax’ squad for the Future Cup wasn’t exactly one to write home about, talent-wise. Starting goalkeepers Meuwese and his back-up Ruijgrok were both injured and the under 17’s main attacking threat, Daishawn Redan, wasn’t selected due to him announcing his departure away from Ajax (he won’t be signing a contract in Amsterdam) a few weeks ago. This situation did give Vink the chance to select some players that weren’t eligible to play competitive games for the club yet though, with Polish youngster Gorski, Croatian midfielder Trograncic (on trial from Bayern), Romanian defender Farcas and Hungarian forward Szabolcs all featuring. The squad was completed with some of the club’s upcoming talents, like Ryan Gravenberch (14 years old) and Brian Brobbey (15 years old).

Group Stage

Vink’s boys had a tough start of the competition, playing their unknown counterparts of the J-League. And the Japanese side proved to be a worthy opponent. Forward Jurgen Ekkelenkamp began the game with a shot on goal from Ajax-side, but failed to hit the back of the net. A few chances followed for the home side, but neither were enough to put the Japanese side behind on the scoresheet. The Asian selection got some chances themselves too, but failed to capitalise, resulting in a 0-0 at half time. The second half saw Ajax playing more aggressively, forcing a chance through Ekkelenkamp. The striker just didn’t have his day though, missing once more from a distance. Just a few seconds later, Mitch Bakker saw his freekick end up against the post and Gio de la Vega also missed a chance or two. J-League grew into the game though, becoming more dangerous by the minute and forcing goalkeeper Reiziger into some uneasy saves as well as hitting the post. The game ended in a goalless draw.

Ajax’ second game of the Saturday was against Benfica. The Portuguese side was intimidated early on by Ajax’ pressure-play, forcing their squad backwards and leaving Ajax with some small chances. Despite dominating possession, the Amsterdammers were again (just like their previous game) not capable of forcing big chances in front of goal. Just before half time, the scoring was finally opened by Ajax, as Mitch Bakker’s shot was parried by goalkeeper Biai but De la Vega’s curling rebound hit the back of the net. 0-1. In the second half, Ajax kept possession for large parts of the game but couldn’t split the Portuguese defence wide enough to create any real goalscoring opportunities. The game eventually ended in a 0-1 win.

The third and last group stage game, played on Sunday, was against Juventus. With youngster Gravenberch opening the score after just six minutes, Ajax were off to a flyer. It was all thanks to Sint though, whom got past his opponent on the right wing with a brilliant touch before crossing the ball into the kid’s path. Half way through the first half, Szabolcs was brought down inside the box and the resulting penalty was hit home by Aberkane, gifting Ajax the 2-0 lead. In the second half, the Torino kids tried to claw their way back into the game but all to no avail. Ajax took control of the pace and played the ball around, not lapsing in defence but failing to create any chances themselves either. Two to nil was the final score.

Group A thus ended with the J-League selection in first place, after impressive wins against Juventus and Benfica, and Ajax in second place. Both Benfica and Juventus were eliminated.

In Group B, Anderlecht beat a disappointing Arsenal 3-1 and Bayern got rid of PSG with a convincing 3-1 win. The second round of group stage match-ups ended in an Anderlecht win over Bayern (0-1) and Arsenal narrowly getting past PSG with a 2-1 result. The third and decisive wave of games ended in a 1-1 draw between PSG and Anderlecht and a 4-1 win for Bayern over Arsenal. Anderlecht and Bayern were the sides to proceed into the knockout stages from the B-side of the schedule.

Semi-final

Belgian side Anderlecht were Ajax’ opponents in a heavily contested semi-final. Just 6 minutes into the game, miscommunication between defender Botman and his goalie Reiziger resulted into an early goal against. Temdieu took advantage of the situation and put Anderlecht up by one. After the goal, the Belgians sat in tight and allowed little space in between their lines, although Maduro was able to launch a shot just wide and Gravenberch’s header was cleared off the line.

After half time, the game looked beyond Ajax’ reach after Botman was outpaced and the following cross was cleared poorly. The ball fell to Mayanga, whom pulled the trigger swiftly and gave Anderlecht the 0-2 lead. Not much later, a save by Reiziger was needed to keep Anderlecht from reaching a 0-3 lead. The goals forced Ajax to play a gung-ho style, with every ball being played forward in the hope of getting back into the mix. After a good cross from Schön, Quinten Maduro scored the well-deserved 1-2 and Botman was the one to equalise it all, heading home a cross from Sint. Some good chances followed, but neither side score, which meant the draw went on to penalties.

Ajax’ penalty kickers began poorly, with both Margaret and Schön missing, handing Anderlecht the advantage once more. Goalie Reiziger was the man of the hour though, stepping up to the plate and saving Temdieu’s kick with a cat-like jump, after which Anderlecht also missed their next kick. Ricardo Farcas eventually slotted home the decisive penalty kick, granting Ajax a spot in the 2017 final of the Future Cup.

Elsewhere on the grounds, the boys from Japan were eliminated from the tourney by Bayern’s strong side with 0-1.

Final

The final was just 2 minutes old, when Giovanni de la Vega dealt the first blow to the Bayern youngsters. The winger, used as a striker by Vink after Ekkelenkamp’s injury, was found by a glorious cross from left full-back Mitchell Bakker and calmly slotted home past Wagner for the 1-0 lead. After the opener, Bayern grew into the game and had some chances themselves but failed to score the equaliser. Ajax then picked up again where they had left off, with Sint getting a chance to double the lead before Aberkane landed the second blow, netting the 0-2 after two tries in the 24th minute.

The second half proved little to no threat for Ajax, as the side took control of the ball forced a few chances by Aberkane, Gravenberch and De la Vega. The score remained 2-0 though. The game was marred by a very irregular referee, though, whom left lots of fouls unpunished and failed to send off Mitch Bakker for a ridiculous foul on a Bayern winger just after half time. The Future Cup 2017, however, was won by Ajax!

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Statistics: Ajax 5-1 Heerenveen

Only winning the Europa League will save this squad