Ajax’s youth academy has been the envy of many clubs for decades. Many stellar names have passed through the revered system in Holland’s capital, going on to make history with Ajax or a shedload of money for the club as they flock to the Europe’s wealthier leagues.Justin Kluivert, Davy Klaassen and Davinson Sanchez are just a few names who have left the Dutch giants for sizeable fees over the past 18 months, while a number of Erik ten Hag’s current crop are being eyed by the so-called elite – none more so than Frenkie de Jong.Likened to esteemed compatriot Frank Rijkaard, De Jong manages to combine defensive nous with the guile and passing range of a number 10, as evidenced by his performances this season – the 21-year-old is currently averaging 1.3 tackles and 1.9 interceptions per game, along with an average passing completion of 91%. Editors’ Picks Man Utd ready to spend big on Sancho and Haaland in January Who is Marcus Thuram? Lilian’s son who is top of the Bundesliga with Borussia Monchengladbach Brazil, beware! Messi and Argentina out for revenge after Copa controversy Best player in MLS? Zlatan wasn’t even the best player in LA! His displays have predictably garnered admirers from across the football world, including Barcleona legend Xavi. A move to the Blaugrana or indeed any of Europe’s biggest and best is not high on De Jong’s priority list – for the time being at least – but the lure of lining up alongside a certain diminuitive Argentine could prove too much to resist in the coming seasons.“In the beginning it was fun and I felt very flattered by the stories around Barcelona, but after a while the questions about it got annoying,” he told Elf Voetbal. “For the time being, I just stay with Ajax, at least another year and maybe two or three more years. I’m really enjoying myself here.“If you end up in a club of a higher level, you will play with world-class players anyway. But I would really like to play with Messi someday. Of course I would like to play with him. He’s already 31, so I have to hurry up.”Barcelona aren’t the only club said to be courting De Jong – both Manchester clubs are also keeping tabs on his progress as they plot their next moves in the transfer market – but Barca’s charm offensive seems to have already begun, with former creator-in-chief Xavi leading the niceties.“The Ajax playing style is a bit like the Barcelona playing style, we both come from the Dutch School, from Johan Cruyff. De Jong is still young, but he could contribute a lot to Barca, he is seen as a huge talent. He’s a player to think about, a very good footballer,” Xavi told Mundo Deportivo.“De Jong’s profile is exactly what Barcelona needs. A player who is technically very strong, wants to work for the team, but above all has a lot of talent. Barcelona always play in spaces of 30 to 40 meters when the opponent collapses and then you need talent to get through it.”High praise indeed, but the pressure is now on De Jong to live up to the billing, be that at Barcelona, Ajax or elsewhere.
MANCHESTER, England — Robin van Persie ushered Manchester United into the Champions League quarterfinals — and potentially saved his manager’s job — with a hat trick in a 3-0 victory over Olympiakos that completed one of the competition’s greatest comebacks on March 19.On one of the memorable European nights at Old Trafford, Van Persie scored three times in a 27-minute span either side of halftime to overturn a 2-0 deficit from the first leg.A slew of brilliant saves by David de Gea were also key to a famous win for the English champions — and a vital one for their manager, David Moyes.Moyes’ position had come under intense scrutiny after United’s humiliating 3-0 loss to fierce rival Liverpool in the Premier League on March 16, the latest in a string of dreadful results in his first season in charge.An early exit in Europe could have stretched the patience of fans and United’s hierarchy beyond breaking point — but Moyes is left hoping this can be a watershed moment in his United career. “I don’t want to come out here and say this is the moment,” Moyes said, “but at the same time, I really hope it is.”A nerve-shredding night ended with Olympiakos captain Giannis Maniatis on his knees and in floods of tears, and Moyes saluting home fans and wearing the broadest grin.The under-fire United manager was saved by the goal-scoring qualities of Van Persie, who converted a penalty in the 25th minute, side-footed home his second goal in first-half injury time and curled in a free kick in the 52nd. And he also had words of praise for Ryan Giggs, who at the age of 40 delivered a tireless performance in midfield.Giggs lasted the full match, despite having played only 81 minutes since Jan. 7, and played a crucial role in Van Persie’s first two goals. “His all-round play was very good,” Moyes said. “He defies his age.”Van Persie was carried off on a stretcher in the final minutes after hurting his leg in a challenge but Moyes said he didn’t think it was a serious injury.Olympiakos slumped to its 12th straight away defeat in England and missed out on securing a place in the last eight for the first time since 1999.The Greek champions had their chances — some of De Gea’s saves were breathtaking — but defensively they were chaotic and they became only the sixth team to squander a two-goal lead from the first leg of a Champions League match. “We were unlucky,” Olympiakos midfielder David Fuster said, “and we’re pretty upset about it.”In the other last-16 match, Borussia Dortmund advanced 5-4 on aggregate despite losing the second leg 2-1 at home to Zenit St. Petersburg. The draw for the quarterfinals is held on March 21.“We probably now will go into it as underdogs,” Moyes said. “If we play to our capabilities, which we have not done too often, then I think we will be a match for any team.”Moyes insisted on the eve of the biggest game of his reign that his position was not under threat, saying United’s vision was “long term,” the board was still supportive and stressing that he was in a six-year contract.Fans appeared to be starting to waver, although the banner reading “The Chosen One” — a nickname given to Moyes after he was hand-picked for the job by predecessor Alex Ferguson — remained hung up high in the Stretford End as Olympiakos kicked off.Initially, United was gripped by panic — misplacing passes, diving into tackles and showing no shape defensively — but the nerves were settled by Van Persie’s penalty.The Netherlands striker tumbled after being barged in the back by Jose Holebas after bringing down a cross-field pass from Giggs, and he got up to convert his penalty unerringly.Giggs was the architect of the second goal, too, floating another pass to Wayne Rooney, who crossed for Van Persie to caress his finish under goalkeeper Roberto’s dive.The aggregate score was now 2-2 and Moyes greeted the goal with repeated fist-pumps and marched back to the dressing rooms, breaking into a jog at one point.He was celebrating again within six minutes of the second half when Van Persie curled home a free kick from just outside the area, with Roberto earning the wrath of his defenders for not trusting his wall and vacating the area near where the ball crossed the line.With Olympiakos attacking relentlessly in the final 25 minutes, the final whistle was met with relief as much as joy by home fans. Languishing in seventh place in the Premier League, the Champions League remains a potential source of silverware for United this season.(Steve Douglas, AP Sports Writer) TweetPinShare0 Shares