Having never previously met during their distinctive histories, two of the great names of European soccer will face-off for the third time in 13 months on Tuesday. And for both Barcelona and Ajax the clash at the Camp Nou could be pivotal to their hopes of progressing through a tightly-packed Champions League Group F.
Barcelona head into the match on the back of a defeat to group leaders Paris Saint-Germain, while Ajax could only draw at APOEL Nicosia following an opening home draw against the French champions. Although Ajax will have fond memories of a fine 2-1 win against Barcelona in Amsterdam last season, they will be looking to improve dramatically on a convincing 4-0 defeat in the sides’ first ever meeting, at the Camp Nou.
Lionel Messi hit a hat-trick that day and the four-time world player of the year is coming into the repeat fixture in ominous form. On Saturday against Eibar, Messi set up Xavi with a precision return pass to open the scoring and then scored Barcelona’s third and final goal with a brilliant run and expertly precise finish. Neymar played his part in the goal, too, as the pair’s burgeoning relationship on the pitch continued to pay dividends. The South American duo will soon be joined by a third South American star. Barcelona visit great rivals Real Madrid on Saturday, when Luis Suarez will be available for the first time.
It is a massive week then for coach Luis Enrique, who has begun his time in charge of Barcelona in La Liga with seven wins and a draw and no goals yet conceded. Yet he insists that he won’t be looking forward to El Clasico before what is another important contest against Ajax.
“The feeling around the place is good,” he said, reports Spanish publication AS. “We are winning all of our games, expect one in the league and one in the Champions League, and we have drawn conclusions from those. The crunch moments arrive from March onwards. It's an important game for us. Home matches are key and we need the fans behind us. The obsession is this game. The others don't exist.”
Enrique appeared keen to give Lionel Messi some rest when Barcelona were 3-0 up on Eibar, but instead ended up replacing Neymar. Subsequent speculation has suggested that Messi turned his back on his coach and refused to come off, although video appears to show Messi giving Enrique the thumbs up that he was good to continue. Unsurprisingly, Enrique was keen to brush away any controversy.
“Before making changes we generally ask the players and we make the decision afterwards,” he said. “What happened can be interpreted many ways, depending on who it serves. I will carry on doing what I have been doing.”
Four times champions of Europe Ajax can no longer call upon the same quality of players as their opponents, having had to face up to the reality of losing their best talent season after season. This past summer, two more of their recent standout performers, Daley Blind and Siem de Jong, departed for the Premier League. Coach Frank de Boer, having led the team to four-straight Eredivisie titles, is still trying to overcome the further squad upheaval, with Ajax currently sitting four points behind leaders PSV Eindhoven after nine games of this campaign.
The former Netherlands defender, who played with Barcelona for four years, is attempting to lead them to the knockout phase for the first time since 2010-11. For his return to the Camp Nou, he will have to cope without left-back Nicolai Boilessen and midfielder Thulani Serero.
Prediction: A defeat to PSG means Barcelona will be especially keen to take three points against Ajax and give themselves some breathing room in their efforts to make the last 16. Having been impressively solid, other than in Paris, this season, a win certainly looks on the cards. While they haven’t always been free-flowing going forward so far under Enrique, Messi and Neymar are starting to really hit form and could give Ajax’s backline a tough evening. At the other end, Ajax are not used to having to play on the counter-attack, and, although they will have to watch for the pace and ability of latest starlet Ajax Anwar El Ghazi, Barcelona should keep another shutout.
Barcelona 2-0 Ajax
Kickoff time: 2.45 p.m. EDT
TV channel: Fox Sports 1