Ajax v Real Madrid, 7.45pm
3 October ~ Ajax will understandably be approaching tonight's visit of Real Madrid with a great deal of trepidation. This is the third year in succession that the teams have met in the Champions League group stages, and the aggregate score so far is 12-0 in favour of the Spanish champions. Last year Madrid ran out 3-0 winners in Amsterdam on what was a very traumatic evening for the home team. Dynamo Zagreb's simultaneous 7-1 collapse at home to Lyon meant that the French side went through to the knockout stage on goal difference.
Curiously, even when the Ajax players were told during the game that Lyon were five ahead and therefore poised to qualify, there was no cavalry charge to try to score twice – they were 2-0 down at the time and a draw would have been sufficient to progress, regardless of the score in Croatia.
This is revealing, because it suggests that Ajax didn't have the confidence to throw caution to the wind, even though they had nothing to lose. Inferiority complex? Quite possibly. And given that the current Madrid squad cost approximately 50 times as much to assemble as theirs did, is there much reason to be any more optimistic this time round?
Let's take a look at the plus points. Ajax put up a competent and disciplined performance in their opening Group D confrontation with Borussia Dortmund, with only a very late goal denying them a point. They defeated league leaders FC Twente at the weekend to propel themselves back into the title race. Ryan Babel has been in decent form since returning to his former club from Hoffenheim. During last year's 3-0 defeat by Real, Ajax had two legitimate goals incorrectly disallowed for marginal offside decisions. And maybe Madrid will have one eye on the coming weekend’s clásico.
At Tuesday's press conference, José Mourinho said he thought Ajax were progressing and would be stronger than before. Yet that sounds more like a stock answer than a carefully researched appraisal of the opposition. The fact remains that there is still a clear gulf in class between the two teams, and it would take a very special set of circumstances for Frank de Boer’s men to prevail.
A more realistic target would be to at least attempt to score, while limiting the damage to a couple of goals at the other end. As far as Ajax's overall European aspirations are concerned this season, finishing third in the group (most likely ahead of Dortmund) would be considered a huge achievement. It would appear unlikely that the current squad is even capable of that. Derek Brookman