Milan v Ajax: Champions League showdown for second

“If we play at our level we can get three points,” said Ajax coach Frank de Boer as he looked forward to the crucial Champions League match against AC Milan. “Both sides have an equal chance of winning and getting through – I would say 50-50.”

The 43-year-old is entirely correct, of course. Only a few weeks ago, the possibility of progressing in the competition looked beyond his side as they went through a horrendous period in which they won only two of ten league and Champions League matches. As that run wore on, it seemed that not only their European dreams were coming to an end, but also their hopes of securing a club unprecedented fourth consecutive Eredivisie title.

Now, however, they are three points away from securing their place in the second round of Europe’s most prestige club competition for the first time since 2005-06. Anything else ensures it is Milan who remain in the competition beyond the winter break, something they have failed to do only once in the last ten years (the only year of that period in which they didn’t participate in the competition).

The match may come at the perfect time for De Boer’s men, but it also comes at a great time for Milan. An exciting and seemingly instant turnaround has seen Ajax win each of their last six matches, scoring 17 and conceding only one – Xavi’s penalty in the last Champions League matchday. Milan have also just recovered from a period in which they too won just two of ten games but have won three and drawn two of their most recent five.

Typically of Ajax, it has been an injection of youth, as well as a tactical switch, which has seen the reigning Eredivisie champions go from a stale, apathetic and powerless side to one with more pace, skill and attacking potency.

KlaassJoel Veltman and Stefano Denswil were promoted from the Jong Ajax side to bolster the defence, left weakened following the departure of Toby Alderweireld to Atletico Madrid. Also brought in from the youth team were attacking midfielder Davy Klaassen, who had missed an entire year of development with a groin strain, and wingers Lesley de Sa and Lucas Andersen. While the latter two have added extra speed and width to the team, they haven’t been able to cement themselves as first-team regulars. Klaassen, on the other hand, has been crucial in the Amsterdam side’s revival. His control, intelligence, passing range and ability as well as his speed, have seen him become a key player in only a few weeks, a point proved by his exceptional hat-trick against NAC Breda on Saturday.

From there on in, De Boer mixed things up with a shift in his set-up of the team. Striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson was moved out to the left wing for the home game against Celtic, opposite of Lasse Schone, while attacking midfielder Siem de Jong became the pinnacle of attack. Also, left-back Daley Blind was moved into the centre of midfield alongside Klaassen and Thulani Serero, while Nicolai Boilesen has returned to take up the left-back role.

Against Celtic, Ajax had the spark and fire they had been missing for weeks as they defeated Neil Lennon’s team to give themselves a chance of remaining in the Champions League beyond the winter break.

That win kick-started their current streak and since then, Ajax have been able to build some momentum and gain some fluidity in their performances. Even the absence of the injured De Jong and Sigthorsson for the last three weeks has gone unnoticed.

The level of performances of late has convinced coach De Boer that if it is maintained, they will be crowned champions for the fourth consecutive season.

Each player has improved in the last six weeks. Winger Viktor Fischer, who was extremely poor at the start of the season, has stepped up his performances; De Jong has returned to form and the influential character which saw him made captain; Klaassen has added a lot of energy, creativity, drive and intelligence to the team; and Blind is showing that he is a far better number six than he is a left-back.

There is more belief and confidence in the team now and that will be crucial in Milan this evening.

De Boer’s Ajax side stick strictly to their philosophy. Dominating and attacking. Passing and pressing forward. It doesn’t matter who the opposition is.

This will be the case in Milan. They dominated for the majority of the game when these two sides met in Amsterdam back in October. Ajax had 70% possession at half time, but hadn’t found the net. A Denswil header in the 90th minute put the hosts ahead, but Mario Balotelli’s dive in injury time won Massimiliano Allegri’s men a penalty in injury time, which the Italian forward converted to earn a valuable point.

While the officials’ error was a sore one, it was Ajax’s own incompetence which saw them fail to collect all three points. They simply weren’t clinical enough in relation to their dominance.

That, though, is a point De Boer must make to his players. They find themselves a much more dangerous side than they were that night. They have developed into a more clinical, energetic and courageous side in the two months which have passed since.

They do face some issues, however. De Jong is still absent with injury, as is Lerin Duarte and Nicolai Boilesen, while Veltman is suspended having picked up a red card against Barcelona.

Sigthorsson is available once again as is Bojan, who came off the bench to find the net in each of Ajax’s last two league games, however it looks more likely that Danny Hoesen will keep his place at the pinnacle of attack. Boilesen’s absence means either young right-back Ruben Ligeon will take up the position or else Blind will move into the role with veteran Christian Poulsen replacing him in midfield. As Veltman is unavailable, it will be Denswil who partners Moisander in defence.

Tonight’s opponents may sit ninth in Serie A and approach this tie off the back of a stuttering performance in a 2-2 draw Livorno, they do have a very strong team, one certainly capable of getting at least a draw from Ajax. Balotelli, Kaka and Stephan El Shaarawy are three attacking players with the speed, power and goalscoring ability that will really test Niklas Moisander and Denswil. While they do not tend to play with a great amount of width, if they do push out wide they can definitely put the inexperienced and right-footed Ligeon under severe pressure.

De Jong is the ideal type of player to try and keep the dynamic and adventurous Ajax midfield under control. His strength and tackling ability will make things difficult for Klaassen, a key source of creativity for the visitors.

Both teams have experienced a huge increase in momentum and both coaches are confident of getting the better of their opponents.

“They have improved a lot lately, but we are also doing well,” said De Boer. “If we play at our level we can get three points. They will try to defend and keep the ball. Kaká and Balotelli are two great players, we have to be careful of them, but we feel good and we can produce a great performance.

We need to exploit the space that Milan will give us. We have to do our best.”

Allegri insisted his players must be motivated and ready to fight for the victory in the San Siro.

“We have to be aggressive and competitive to win the match,” said the Milan coach. “So far we’ve performed well in the Champions League, but we’ll need to go up a level tomorrow. The team will have to be patient in possession and the fans have an important role to play.”

De Boer and Allegri both have great belief in their squads. Ajax are desperate to reach the goal they set before the season began and reach the next phase of the tournament, while Milan are hoping to avoid a huge catastrophe and progress beyond the group which looked relatively easy for them at the beginning of the campaign.  An enticing affair with a great deal at stake between two teams that have picked up a great deal of momentum heading into this tie, this game will be the perfect ending for the group with four previous European Cup winners.

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