Ajax, the past masters

Frank de Boer described Ajax as 'heavenly' and 'world class' when they did the double over Real Madrid in the group stage of the 1995-96 Champions League, winning 1-0 at the Amsterdam Arena and 2-0 at the Bernabeu.

Fast forward 17 years, and the second most capped player in the history of the Dutch national team is striking an altogether more cautious note.

Now, the former centre back is coaching the club. Now, his remit is to stop Real doing a group stage double over Ajax – for the third year running.

“It will not be an easy task considering the results from the past,” he said yesterday. “The matches from last year are still at the back of my mind.”

It's perhaps no surprise that De Boer speaks like a man haunted by the four beatings Real have dished out during the last two years, even if only the last two occurred on his watch. For someone who was part of an Ajax side that bested the Merengues in such style, it can't have been easy watching what was once a clash of European football's titans become such a one sided affair.

Jose Mourinho and his players have, for their part, done a passable impression of a team not certain of victory this week.

“Ajax will present us with a completely different match compared with earlier seasons,” declared Mou. “They have worked with Frank for another season and are now more used to the level of the Champions League.”

Those of a slightly over dramatic disposition could even describe Los Blancos as going into the game 'in turmoil', with full-back Alvaro Arbeloa having to fend off talk of dressing room disharmony and the Mourinho-Sergio Ramos tete a tete refusing to die quietly. Of the 15 questions put to the Special One in yesterday's Press conference, only three regarded tonight's match. Seven regarded Ramos.

The pitch is the only place to look for a reliable indication of where Real are really at however, and on it they've been back to something approaching their imperious best since the dramatic defeat of Manchester City on matchday one, comfortably disposing of Rayo Vallecano and Deportivo La Coruna.

These clubs have both been involved in a lot of expensive transfers in recent years, but whereas Real have been buying players, Ajax have been selling them. The reigning Eredivisie champions are still churning stars of the future out of their youth academy at an alarming rate, but unlike in De Boer's day, too many are sold on too regular a basis for a truly great side to take shape.

The XI that welcomed Real to the Amsterdam Arena in 2010 contained Maarten Stekelenburg, Gregory van der Wiel, Jan Vertonghen, Vurnon Anita, Mounir El Hamdaoui and Luis Suarez. All have now left.

Former Barcelona defender De Boer wouldn't publicly give such thoughts countenance. But with the aggregate score from the last four meetings sat at 12-0 in Real's favour, simply surviving with their dignity intact would constitute a job well done for Ajax tonight.