Ajax open their Premier Soccer League campaign with an away fixture against Wits in Johannesburg on Saturday night (kick-off 8.15pm) - and Finnish goalkeeper Jaakkola believes that, if things continue the way they did in Tuesday’s 1-0 MTN8 quarter-final win over Orlando Pirates, the Urban Warriors could do very well this season.
Jaakkola has been an inspirational figure for Ajax since signing in 2013. The 28-year-old shot-stopper played in his home country, Italy, the Czech Republic and Scotland before arriving in the Mother City.
In a very young Ajax squad, Jaakkola is the voice and presence of experience, while he is also often the only player in the team that doesn’t have his roots in the Cape club’s youth academy.
In that semi-final against Pirates in midweek, the Finn was outstanding. Ajax weren’t at their best, especially in the first half, and Jaakkola had to pull off some memorable saves to keep the Capetonians in the game.
“It was a big win against Pirates,” Jaakkola said. “I don’t think we played too well, we couldn’t get our passing game going and I thought we were lacking in energy at times. But I guess that makes the win all that better.
“But you know what impressed me was that, for the first time ever, we played a bit of a nasty game. I think sometimes we are too nice, we don’t want to roll up our sleeves and fight for the points.
“But, against Pirates, I finally saw that aspect of our game. The team put in the tackles, they worked hard, they toughed it out, and it was nice to see such a change.”
But with Wits waiting on Saturday night, Jaakkola is aware that Ajax are in for yet another difficult challenge.
“We know what Wits are all about,” he said. “They will come with high balls into the penalty area and play off the second ball. They are an aerial threat, so they’ll try to use that to their advantage. We just have to make sure that we are sharp and alert and that we are ready for the physical battle.”
And, considering Jaakkola’s thoughts on how he expects Wits to play, there’s no doubt the keeper’s role will be extremely vital on Saturday night.
Ajax coach Roger de Sa, too, admitted that facing the Students is always a difficult task - and it’s a challenge he will have to get used to, especially now that they also have to face the Clever Boys in a two-leg MTN8 semi-final over the next few weeks.
“It’s a really tough league opener,” De Sa said. “Wits have added some good players to their squad and I think they will do well this season. I certainly believe that they will be among the title-contenders.
“And, for us today, it’s even more difficult, in that Wits are always tough to play at home. But it’s a challenge we will have to overcome.”
The challenge for both De Sa and Ajax, of course, is in their performance on the road. Over the last few seasons, the Urban Warriors have been abysmal away from home, but the coach is starting to see a change.
“At the end of last season, we beat Bloemfontein Celtic away and there were also a few other away games in which we did well,” De Sa said.
“And then on Tuesday we went to Orlando to beat Pirates, something which we haven’t done in a number of years… so the away form is also starting to look good.
“We are finally getting a little better on the road. But it’s also about consistency, and that is now the challenge for the squad.”
Saturday: Free State Stars v Black Aces; Polokwane City v Bloem Celtic; Platinum Stars v Mamelodi Sundowns; Wits v Ajax Cape Town (Joburg, 8.15pm)
Sunday: Golden Arrows v University of Pretoria; Chippa United v Kaizer Chiefs
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