Barcelona and Ajax get their Champions League campaigns underway on Wednesday with a matchup at the Camp Nou that will pay testament to the still enduring link between two of the historical giants of the European game.
The home side will be beginning their quest to regain the Champions League after their European dominance was ended in the most abrasive manner by Bayern Munich in last season’s semifinals. That phenomenal spell of success under Pep Guardiola, which encompassed two titles, was built on the short-passing style first brought to Catalonia by legendary manager Rinus Michels in the 1970s after implementing the same ideals at Ajax.
The links between the two sides have continued since then. Notably Johan Cruyff and then Louis van Gaal managed both sides and were key influences on Guardiola as a player and subsequently on the now Bayer Munich boss rejuvenating Barcelona as a manager. Frank de Boer, who played under Van Gaal at the Camp Nou and in Amsterdam, will lead Ajax out on Wednesday.
As for Barcelona, they have now moved to the South American form of the passing-and-pressing style in the form of Gerardo Martino. It will be a day of desperately mixed emotions for the Argentinean on Wednesday. After taking charge of his first match in the Champions League he will return to his homeland to attend the funeral of his father. Focusing on matters on the pitch, the former Newell’s Old Boys coach is under no illusions about the expectations he has on his shoulders.
“I am very excited about the chance to coach in the Champions League,” he said, according to UEFA.com. “I am also a little nervous to be involved in such a prestigious competition. When I took the job, I knew that if we didn't win a title this season it would be a failure. I believe we can repeat the glorious moments of recent seasons but matching the standards we have set will be tough.”
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Another man making his bow in Europe’s top competition will be Brazilian Neymar. The summer signing is likely to be playing ahead of fellow-Brazilian Adriano after Jordi Alba suffered a hamstring injury in Saturday’s 3-2 win over Sevilla. Captain Carles Puyol is not yet fit enough to return after his long absence.
These days Ajax’s ambitions are far more modest than those of their opponents. While, like, Barcelona, the Dutch champions continue to focus on youth, they have had to sell off their top talent at increasingly younger ages. That trend continued this summer, with Danish playmaker Christian Eriksen and Belgian defender Toby Alderweireld leaving for England and Spain, respectively.
While the much-traveled Bojan Krkic has arrived on loan from Barcelona as part of the latest connection between the two clubs, it has been a difficult start to the season for Ajax. Indeed, they currently lie in fourth place in the Eredivisie after six matches. And De Boer is well aware of the challenge that facing his former club entails.
“I have great memories because I played here for four years,” he said. “I enjoyed that time very much and it's a second home for me and my family. This is my first official match against Barcelona so that's emotional for me and also a huge challenge to face the best team in the world. I learned true football here. I wanted to prove what I could do. To join Barcelona was a big lesson and I have told some of my players about that.”
De Boer will be sweating on the fitness of talented captain Siem de Jong, who has travelled to Barcelona but is unlikely to be able to play the full 90 minutes.
D: Daniel Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Adriano
M: Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta
F: Sanchez, Messi, Neymar
D: Van Rhijn, Moisander, Denswil, Blind
M: Serero, Schone, De Jong
F: Bojan, Sigthorsson, Fischer
Prediction: Barcelona are still looking to fully implement Martino’s subtle adjustments, with, as Gerard Pique put it, the team no longer being “a slave to tiki-taka.” In the long-term Neymar should benefit Lionel Messi as well as the side as a whole, while Alexis Sanchez also appears to be returning to the form he showed at Udinese. At the back, though, Barcelona remain a worry. Against Sevilla at the weekend three points were so nearly thrown away as their problems with dealing with set-pieces again resurfaced.
It is unlikely that Ajax will be able to take advantage, however. With De Jong not fully fit it is a further blow to the side’s creativity following the loss of Eriksen. There is now much pressure on the next big thing to come through the ranks, Danish 19-year-old Viktor Fischer. At the other end, Ajax have conceded nine goals in their last five matches and Barcelona have the ability to significantly worsen that record on Wednesday.
Barcelona 4-1 Ajax
Where to watch: The Champions League Group H match will kick-off at 2.45 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by Fox Sports 1, with a live stream available on Fox Soccer 2Go.