Barcelona could secure a place in the Champions League knockout phase with a win over Ajax in Amsterdam on Wednesday, but the bigger prize may well be a chance to boost morale and right a ship that has been blown dramatically off course in the past 10 days. When Barcelona won 3-1 at home against the Dutch champions two weeks ago they were top of La Liga. Luis Enrique’s reign at the Camp Nou had begun with seven wins and a draw from the first eight league matches, with not a single goal conceded.
Then came a trip to the Bernabeu and what was by the end a convincing loss to bitter foes Real Madrid. In itself, the defeat to a Madrid team in sensational form was no cause for panic. But Saturday’s loss, at home, to the team Enrique left this summer, Celta Vigo, has left them fourth in La Liga and led to a far more sweeping examination of the state of the Catalans.
It has not helped that the two defeats have occurred in Luis Suárez’s first two appearances in a Barcelona shirt. The Uruguayan’s four-month ban for biting Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini at the 2014 World Cup now ended, Enrique has one of the greatest forward lines ever assembled, alongside four-time world player of the year Lionel Messi and Brazilian star Neymar. Such riches may bring envious glances from across the world, but it is Enrique who is faced with the task of assembling them into a cohesive lineup. So far getting the chemistry right with the ball and assigning responsibilities without the ball remains very much a work in progress.
At the venue where Suárez first truly came to prominence in Europe, scoring 111 goals in 159 appearances for Ajax, Barcelona will again seek to iron out those kinks. They head to the Dutch capital four points above Ajax and knowing that three points will bring a place in the last 16 unless Cypriots APOEL Nicosia pull off an unlikely win at Paris Saint-Germain. A win could be more crucial in keeping Barcelona’s hopes alive of topping Group F and earning, on paper, a kinder draw in the last 16. Barcelona currently trail Paris Saint-Germain by three points after a 3-2 defeat to the French champions in September -- a loss that meant they have left empty handed from three of their last four away matches in the Champions League.
Included in that run was a 2-1 defeat in Amsterdam 12 months ago. And Ajax now realistically need to repeat that result if they are to make it out of the group phase for the first time in nine years. After four straight Eredivisie titles, coach Frank de Boer is seeking to make a mark in Europe. The former Netherlands international is another who keeps alive the long-standing links between Ajax and Barcelona, having played at the Camp Nou, alongside Enrique, for four years. With De Boer embracing the 4-3-3 system and short-passing style that has become synonymous for both clubs, he was seen as a contender for the coaching job at the Camp Nou this summer and may again have his name thrust into the frame should Barcelona’s stumble turn into a full-blown slide.
Ajax have won both their league games since losing in Barcelona, but remain second in the Eredivisie. De Boer will have a full-strength squad at his disposal, with the exception of long-term injury victim Viktor Fischer, while Barcelona will be missing both Andres Iniesta and Jeremy Mathieu to calf injuries.
Prediction: Barcelona will be a daunting prospect for almost every other team in the world when Suárez, Messi and Neymar find their groove. There are still long-term questions to answer, however, about how that narrow trio can be accommodated in front of a midfield selection often lacking the dynamism and physicality to maintain some semblance of balance. The loss of Mathieu for the trip to Amsterdam is significant, too, with the French defender having impressed since joining from Valencia and the man likely to replace him, Gerard Pique, still struggling for form. With Ajax on a good run they could well secure a draw to keep their hopes of progress just alive.
Ajax 1-1 Barcelona
Kickoff time: 2:45 PM ET
TV channel: Fox Sports 1, ESPN Deportes