FC Barcelona will be looking to get their UEFA Champions League campaign back on track on Tuesday evening, when they host Eredivisie champions AFC Ajax at the Camp Nou, knowing that nothing less than a win will appease the Catalan crowds ahead of this weekend’s El Clasico showdown with Real Madrid. After a disappointing display and indeed defeat against Paris Saint-Germain in Matchday 2, the Blaugrana currently sit in second place in Group F – an unfamiliar position for one of the game’s heavyweight sides.
The ramifications of finishing as runners-up in Group F could mean a potential Round of 16 clash with Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, or Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea – or indeed any of the teams that go on to eventually top their respective groups. Well, save for anyone Spanish that is – which might be as much a curse as a blessing if it means a greater chance of drawing Bayern for instance. But I’m getting ahead of myself; who needs to worry about a tie with Bayern Munich? FC Barcelona are going to top their group, and they’re going to demonstrate their credentials tomorrow against a fallen giant of the European game.
Long gone are the days of Johan Cruyff, or even Louis van Gaal –Ajax are now an afterthought in the game. If anything, being drawn against Ajax came as something of a relief – we know that Ajax are less likely to "park the bus", and therefore are more likely to give us a "favourable" game, or at least the conditions we need to thrive.
The ideal preparation for a Clasico. Not too tough, not too easy – Ajax are Goldilocks: just right...
We can bring you news of a dramatic late substitution – that’s right, I’ve been recalled from the wilderness, specifically to bring you this preview. Sorry, I know you were looking forward to seeing someone else on the tagline, or perhaps some actual Barça news, but you’re stuck with me. Sorry. I’ll be gone soon though – but all joking aside, I wonder who will return first: me, or Thomas Vermaelen?
OK, for real this time – let’s get down to business. As much as we would like to rest everyone before the Clasico, the reality is that we cannot. We need the three points and Ajax are not the walkover that some might suggest. This will be a tough match, and one that we simply cannot afford to lose. Or even draw. The margin for error is non-existent, and Luis Enrique knows that. So, he’s keeping his cards close to his chest; no-one really has the first idea who will and will not feature tomorrow – so it’s time to get that crystal ball out and play the guessing game, again.
Marc-André ter Stegen should start, as Luis Enrique has been consistent with that particular rotation. Bizarrely, some people are suggesting that he actually might make a choice tomorrow to start Claudio Bravo, or even Jordi Masip, possibly in reaction to ter Stegen’s performance against Paris Saint-Germain, but that’s just plain stupid and I’ll forfeit my ticket to the Clasico if the German is dropped for tactical reasons come kick-off tomorrow.
Douglas is still
terrible unfit, and hence he will not feature. Adriano Correia is feeling a little tightness in his thigh and has been left out as a precaution while, obviously, Thomas Vermaelen continues to not do anything at all. As a consequence, one can probably make an educated guess at the defensive line-up for tomorrow’s match – and the impacts it might have on Saturday’s team.
Martin Montoya and Jordi Alba will both start, although only the former will play on Saturday. Marc Bartra is also likely to start, and therefore miss the Clasico – while I would bet that whoever joins him in the centre of defense will start the Clasico on the bench. Who will it be? Javier Mascherano? Jeremy Mathieu? Gerard Piqué? My money is on the Frenchman leaving Geri and Mascherano to start against Real, but that’s just my two cents.
At pivote, Sergio Busquets can decide whether or not he wants to play – with the Clasico on his mind, he probably won’t, which is fine. We need him in tip-top condition to contest with the Madridista offense, plus, who wouldn’t want to see Sergi Samper start against Ajax? Ahead of Samper, look for Ivan Rakitić to make his return with Andrés Iniesta, as Lucho teases that Xavi might start the Clasico after all.
In attack, Lucho has the luxury of three "rested" faces – he could easily rotate the entire frontline and start Sandro, Munir and Rafinha tomorrow, but in all likelihood only two of the previous will start, and even then, it might only be one. However, I think that – i.e. starting Pedro and Messi/Neymar – makes it obvious that Suarez will start on Saturday, and I think that Lucho will want to keep that secret for as long as possible. So, expect to see Rafinha, Munir and probably Neymar, with the Brazilian probably rotating out for Sandro or Messi at some stage in the second half.
Ajax haven’t won away from home in the UEFA Champions League in three years. That’s great news, and eases my mind slightly as we head into another potential banana skin fixture. Frank de Boer, a former teammate of Luis Enrique’s, has called this fixture a "learning experience" for his young side – hopefully it’s a lesson in humility rather than a lesson in success against the odds. For the most part, Ajax have a full squad at their disposal, but their squad has been ravaged by transfers and one of their brightest talents, Viktor Fischer, remains injured, so I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether that’s a bad thing or not.
AFC Ajax 2-1 FC Barcelona – 26th November 2013 – UEFA Champions League
The hosts may have been reduced to ten men, but they were still too organised for their visitors, as FC Barcelona struggled en route to a disappointing and surprise defeat in Amsterdam courtesy of goals from Thulani Serero and Danny Hoesen.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Montoya, Bartra, Mathieu, Alba; Samper, Rakitić, Iniesta; Neymar, Munir, Rafinha
Ajax (4-3-3): Cillessen; van Rhijn, Moisander, Veltman, Boilesen; Klaassen, Zimling, Serero; Kishna, Sigƿorsson, El Ghazi
Depends who starts really – but assuming that one of Neymar and Messi is in the line-up, I’m going with a 3-1 home win.
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