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Barcelona, Ajax on different paths

Have Barcelona improved since last season, or is there work to do?
Have Barcelona improved since last season, or is there work to do?
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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Throughout soccer history, every club has been influenced, in ways big and small, by other teams. Some mimic jerseys, some a philosophy on player recruitment or development, some a playing style. Few clubs, however, have had quite so profound a sway on one another as Ajax Amsterdam and Barcelona, who face each other in their respective UEFA Champions League group stage openers (live, FOX Sports 1, Wednesday, 2 p.m. ET).

Ever since Johan Cruyff left Ajax for Barca in 1973, 20 players have made at least one appearance for the senior team of both clubs. Rinus Michels, Cruyff and Louis van Gaal managed both clubs. Ajax icon Frank Rijkaard managed Barca, whereupon his assistant Henk ten Cate managed Ajax. Frank de Boer, who played at Ajax for 10 ½ seasons and Barca 4 ½, now manages Ajax and seems destined to return to the Blaugrana at some point.

But their shared roots run much deeper. Michels and Cruyff pioneered what came to be known as Total Football at Ajax in the late 1960s, a fluid playing philosophy the club rode to three consecutive Champions League trophies from 1971-73. It consisted of high pressing, quick passes and positional interchanges by a highly technical, possession-obsessed, space-optimizing and abidingly attacking team.

If that sounds a lot like the Tiki-taka that Barca has mostly been playing since the late 1980s -- when Cruyff returned as coach -- and perfected in recent years while claiming the ’09 and ’11 Champions League titles, it’s because one was based on the other. Then-Barca coach Josep Guardiola, devoted to Barca’s core playing style, was also an adept of the Ajax school. And after taking over at Ajax in late 2010, de Boer reintroduced a blend of the two styles at Ajax, winning the Dutch Eredivisie every season since.

La Masia, meanwhile, Barca’s endlessly-laurelled youth academy, which produced the spine of both the club’s and the Spanish national team’s all-conquering sides, was Cruyff’s idea. Having himself joined the Ajax-academy at 10; he suggested it to then-president Josep Nunez in 1979. It would be a place to indoctrinate the finest talent in the region in the club’s ways, the way it was done so successfully at Ajax, rather than have to teach it to less-malleable adults. By the time Cruyff took over as coach, he gave La Masia’s first wave of products their debuts. Guardiola was among them.

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But if these clubs’ history tracks a very similar path, the way they live now is largely incomparable. Barca, of course, is among the world’s greatest teams. And many wonder if, taken over the past five or so years, they aren’t the best side the sport has ever seen.

Ajax has tumbled heavily from a similar perch since the mid-90s. They were the envy of the soccer world then, with their swashbuckling style and preposterously talented prospects. But the Bosman Arrest and the lagging value of the Dutch league’s broadcast rights have conspired to relegate the Amsterdam club to a perpetual also-ran. These days, a league title and the knockout stages of the Champions League make for a great season.

And so, they hardly enter this game on equal footing. Under new manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino, Barca has continued right where it left off last year, even if they are slightly less rigid ideologically now that the Argentinean is in charge. They are a perfect 4-0-0 in La Liga and have already eked out the Spanish Super Cup with a 1-1 aggregate win on away goals. Oh, and they’ve added no less than Neymar, the world’s most-hyped attacking prospect, who has shown himself worthy of sharing the front line with Lionel Messi thus far (Barca also loaned forward Bojan Krkic, whose great promise has yet to materialize into performance, to Ajax).

And if Barcelona’s 1-0, 3-2 and 3-2 league wins over Malaga, Valencia and Sevilla, respectively, were a tad tight, they have nevertheless already opened up a 2-point gap with archrivals Real Madrid, who were held to a 2-2 draw at Villareal this the weekend.

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Ajax, meanwhile, have once again lost a pair of their best players -- like they seem to do every summer -- as playmaker Christian Eriksen left for Tottenham Hotspur and defensive captain Toby Alderweireld skipped town for Atletico Madrid. So Ajax, as ever, find themselves rebuilding, just as they appeared on the precipice of making some waves in Europe. Given the circumstances, their 3-1-2 league record is understandable but threatens to decay further with an away game to PSV after Wednesday’s monumental challenge at the Camp Nou.

Even if Ajax and Barcelona remain kindred spirits, the outcome seems predetermined. It’s the sad truth. Their ideas and convictions will be the same, but the means and talent at their disposal to execute them won’t.

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