Wednesday’s first home Champions League game of the season is something of a revenge mission for Ajax. Last December, they were thrashed 3-0 at the Amsterdam Arena by a Real team missing several regulars, a result that, combined with an astonishing 7-1 victory for Olympic Lyonnais, saw the Dutch masters finish third in their group and miss out on the knock-out stages.
Weighing up this game is made harder by the fact that Jose Mourinho has been tinkering rather more than usual with Real’s personnel and tactics. A case in point was his decision to start with Essien rather than Ozil or Modric against Manchester City. This managerial twitchiness has been brought on by Real’s sluggish performances so far, largely lacking the pace and power of last season.
The fact that Real have already suffered two away defeats in La Liga will also give the Dutch some hope of picking up their first Champions League win of the campaign. Those defeats at Getafe and Sevilla had Mourinho publicly questioning the attitude of his players and at the time of writing, they are currently seventh in La Liga, not a part of the table that Real fans are accustomed to scrutinising.
Ajax should be fairly confident too, given their good start to the season. In three home league games, they’ve scored nine goals and they nearly succeeded in holding Dortmund to a draw in their first Group game. New signing Christian Poulsen seems to have brought a calm and stability to the midfield, whilst Ryan Babel is a useful addition giving them some variety up front.
But there is a dilemma for Ajax boss Frank de Boer. In such a tough group there are no easy matches and he can’t afford to target certain opponents. If Ajax are to have any chance of progressing, they must take risks and try to gain points at the expense of opponents all of whom are, on paper, the better team. And the Ajax fans will want to see their team get the ball down and play.
The problem is that Real are adept at playing on the counter. The trademark Mourinho fast-break when practised by players of the class of Ronaldo, Modric and Ozil is lethal. And they are showing signs of getting into gear. The scrambling victory over Manchester City was followed up by a comfortable away win over Rayo Vallecano in a text-book display of counter-attacking football.
So I suspect Ajax will take a cautious approach, unwilling to leave too much space at the back and will even hope to invite Real on to them a little. It could turn out to be a cagey affair and I think the draw at odds of 7/2 looks pretty tempting. It’s also worth having a dabble in the correct score market where I like the look of 1-1 at 8/1.