By Craig Turnbull
They say age is only a number, but as Ajax and Anderlecht have found out to their cost in the Champions League, it is apparent that it counts for a whole lot more.
Both sides have the youngest squads in the competition with an average of age of just 23-years-old, and it seems that the expectation and pressure that comes with playing in Europe is weighing heavily down on them.
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Ajax, a club widely heralded for their wonderful youth academy, which has seen the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf and more recently Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart come through the ranks, are not enjoying the same success as they once did in the halcyon days of the '90s. Back then they reached consecutive Champions League finals, beating AC Milan in 1995, before losing to Juventus on penalties the following year. A 2-1 defeat to Celtic on matchday three this season rooted Frank de Boer's men to the bottom of Group H. But perhaps it is telling that only one player in that starting XI - 33-year-old Christian Poulsen - was over the age of 24 and the average age of that side was just under 23.
Viktor Fischer and Lucas Andersen, both 19, are the shining new stars of the Dutch side but are not at the same standard as previous academy alumni, while the sales of young, accomplished playmaker Christian Eriksen to Tottenham and Belgium international defender Toby Alderweireld to Atletico Madrid in the summer, have done nothing to mitigate their Champions League woes.
Meanwhile, Belgian side Anderlecht are facing a similar situation to their Dutch counterparts, with inexperienced youngsters and a dearth of top quality players blighting their campaign. In the 3-0 and 5-0 defeats to Olympiakos and Paris Saint-Germain, respectively, coach John van den Brom fielded a side with an average age of only 22. Youri Tielemans at 16 years and 148 days became the third youngest player to play in the Champions League behind Alen Halilovic and Celestine Babayaro, while Dennis Praet, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Chancel Mbemba, all 19, who were in the squad, have yet to prove they can compete at this level. As a result the Belgians are yet to get off the mark, or even score a goal in Group C and have conceded 10.
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It seems that an appropriate blend of youth and experience can help facilitate the quest for glory if previous winners of the tournament are anything to go by.
Last season's successors Bayern have young players such as David Alaba, Toni Kroos and Xherdan Shaqiri complemented by older talents like Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben which brings the squad's average age up to 26.
Borussia Dortmund, whom they beat in the final this year, have exciting talents like Robert Lewandowski, 25, and Marco Reus, 24, while goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller, 33, helps to take the squad average up to 25.
Real Madrid, who are targeting la Decima, have an average of 26 years, while rivals Barcelona, who recently won the tournament in 2009 and 2011 are slightly older at 27.
This is also the case for the two Manchester clubs, United and City, both of whom had an average of 27-years-old. Arsenal are slightly younger at 26, and 2012 winners Chelsea are older at 28 years of age. French champions Paris Saint-Germain have an average of just under 26.
The age of players alone cannot be a determining factor as to the success of the club, as the quality of player, tactics, coach, and the ability to play as a team are also key concerns, but what it does show is that teams who are heavily reliant on young players at this level can struggle with the demand and expectations placed on them as Ajax and Anderlecht know only too well.
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