Two of the most decorated clubs in European football will clash at the Amsterdam Arena on Tuesday as Dutch giants Ajax Amsterdam tangle with Spanish superpower Barcelona in a Group H fixture. Both clubs have won the European title 4 times, and are filled with legendary players from the past.
However, the present time is much kinder to Barcelona. Already clinching a spot in the Round of 16, Barcelona can clinch first place in Group H with a victory. Barcelona easily defeated Ajax 4-0 at the Nou Camp back on September 18. Ajax are currently sitting in third place in Group H, one point behind AC Milan. If Ajax can somehow get a positive result, it would set up a vital matchup with the Italian club on the final day of the group stage, with the winner moving on to the Round of 16.
For the most part, Ajax uses a 4-3-3 formation but will go to a standard 4-4-2 depending on tactics. Since Barcelona uses the 4-3-3, Ajax manager Frank De Boer is faced with a quandary. Does he try to matchup directly against the Catalans or does he crowd the midfield to cut off Barcelona’s tiki-taka approach? Barcelona will be without Lionel Messi so that could affect De Boer’s approach.
A major concern for Ajax is the health of striker Kolbeinn Sigthorssen. The Icelandic International, injured his ankle during World Cup qualifying and he missed Ajax’s weekend fixture. With Sigthorssen’s status uncertain, it could be up to Viktor Fischer, Danny Hoesen and Davy Klaassen to seize the day. While that trio brings a youthful exuberance, their lack of experience could be telling on this high pressure stage. Swedish International Tobias Sana could see time on the pitch as well, despite a disappointing showing for Sweden during World Cup qualifying.
Lasse Schone is a rising star in the midfield. The Swiss International is a dynamic playmaker with a flair for the odd goal or two. Schone will be taxed by the Barcelona midfield, so he could be forced to drop back further which won’t be to his liking. Siem de Jong will most likely not play due to a hamstring knock which will affect Ajax in attack mode. Expect Daley Blind and South African International Thulani Serero to make the team sheet.
The back four was bolstered over the weekend with the return of left back Niklas Moisander. The Finnish International returned over the weekend in Ajax’s 3-0 result over Heracles Almelo. Nicolai Boilesen, Joel Veltman and Ricardo Van Rhijn round out the back for Ajax.
Jasper Cillessen has been in top form recently between the sticks, posting three consecutive team sheets for Ajax. One of them was an important 1-0 shutout performance over Celtic to keep Ajax afloat in Group H. Cillessen will need to be at his best in order to withstand Barcelona’s attack.
As mentioned earlier, Lionel Messi is sidelined with a torn femoral bicep in the left leg and will be out of action for at least 6 weeks. Alexis Sanchez is suspended for the fixture which makes things even more difficult for Gerardo Martino’s side. Brazilian wunderkind Neymar should make the team sheet along with Pedro and Cristian Tello. There will be added strain on Neymar’s shoulders but the 21-year-old forward is more than capable of handling the stress.
The midfield could see a different look as well. Early reports suggest Xavi could start the match on the bench with Cesc Fabregas taking his place. The former Arsenal talisman is a creative playmaker but at times lacks the defensive responsibility that Xavi brings. Andres Iniesta is expected to start on the left side of the midfield. Sergi Roberto is expected to be the holding midfielder in place of Sergio Busquets who is also expected to start the match on the bench.
The back four is also going through some trying times. Jordi Alba hasn’t played since September due to a hamstring knock. Martin Montoya is expected to fill in on the left side. Right back Dani Alves picked up a calf injury during International duty and could miss Tuesday’s fixture. If the Brazilian isn’t fit, another Brazilian, Adriano will be inserted into the starting eleven. Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano are expected to be the centre back tandem.
Even the keeper isn’t safe from the injury bug. Victor Valdes suffered a calf strain and will miss the rest of the Group Stage for Barcelona. Jose Manuel Pinto will get the call for Barcelona, and did record a clean sheet over the weekend. While Pinto isn’t expected to be a difference maker, he needs to make sure that the mistakes are kept to a minimum and remain poised between the sticks.
This is a tricky game. Barcelona’s injury woes could deeply affect their style of play. Don’t expect an attacking Barcelona side as they will sit back and wait for the counter attack possibilities to come to them. Ajax will need to move forward and create opportunities if they want any chance of advancing past the Group Stage. An Ajax loss combined with a Milan victory would eliminate the Dutch champions from the Champions League. Barcelona’s defending is underrated and Ajax don’t quite have enough quality up front, to make an impact. Barcelona wins 1-0 and clinches first place in Group H.
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