Once-mighty Ajax join Champions League with the minnows

AMSTERDAM: Four-times European champions Ajax Amsterdam find themselves among the pre-qualifiers for the Champions League this year as Dutch football pays the price for its declining record in continental competition.

Ajax are away at Rapid Vienna on Wednesday in the first leg of the third qualifying round tie -- the only former champion among 13 teams entering the competition at that stage.

After four successive Dutch championship successes from 2011 to 2014, Ajax finished second last season but have been forced into early Champions League qualification because the UEFA coefficient for the Netherlands has dropped starkly in recent years.

Only champions PSV Eindhoven gain automatic entry to the league phase despite the Netherlands achieving six European Cup or Champions League wins, shared among three clubs.

Only Spanish, Italian, English and German clubs have won more silverware in European club competition, yet in two years' time the Dutch coefficient could fall outside the top 12, which would mean even the country's league champions would be forced to play in the early rounds.

It is a vicious circle for Dutch clubs, who are having to join the competition so early in the season because of their poor past performance in Europe.

"They are playing in July already their most important game of the season," PSV director Toon Gerbrants said.

"The fewer points our clubs collect for the UEFA coefficient, the earlier we have to enter the European competitions and the more difficult it becomes to get out of the situation," he told the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper on Tuesday.

UEFA's coefficient, which determines how many clubs each country can enter and at which stage of the competition, is calculated by performance over the five preceding seasons.

"We see it as a big problem," added Jelle Goes, the technical manager of the Dutch football association (KNVB).

"International matches at a high level are essential for players and coaches. Should Dutch players have fewer international assignments, that has an impact on the national team," he added.

Wednesday's match in Vienna's Ernst Happel Stadium comes 20 years after Ajax won the Champions League at the same venue -- their most recent success in the competition.

Current coach Frank de Boer, part of Louis van Gaal's winning side against AC Milan two decades ago, was pleased with the chance to go back to Austria.

"It could have been a much tougher draw, although we must still see at what level Rapid Vienna are. On paper we'll be favourites," he said.