Legendary clubs heading in opposite directions
Ajax and Real Madrid are two of the legendary names of European club football. But when they meet at the Amsterdam Arena on Tuesday, that is the only thing they will have in common.
The Spaniards, you sense, are starting to believe they can become the kings of Europe again for a record 10th time. They are on top of La Liga and oozing confidence after a 5-1 thrashing of Athletic Bilbao, the latest in a string of emphatic victories.
Nearly 2000 kilometres away, according to my Road Atlas of Europe, Ajax were participants in a less-than-enthralling 0-0 draw against Eredivisie leaders PSV Eindhoven, which left them still six points adrift in third place.
Ajax won the Champions League in 1995 and beat Real Madrid twice in the group stage on their way to the final in 1996. Photo: Getty Images
For Ajax fans, it has been a season of frustration after so much was promised following their second-place finish last season. Their domestic displays have been underwhelming, while they were hardly convincing against PAOK and Dinamo Kiev as they qualified for the lucrative group stages of the Champions League.
They did get a useful 1-1 draw against AC Milan and then beat Auxerre 2-1 at home to retain hope they could qualify for the last 16 but that ambition was severely dented when they lost 2-1 at Auxerre earlier this month.
Where has the free-scoring side from last season gone, the side that brought back memories of the Cruyff-era of the 1970s? That is the refrain coming from the Netherlands.
Martin Jol's team scored 106 goals last season, and but for a draw against Sparta Rotterdam early in the campaign, would have had a 100% home record.
They didn't drop a point from January until the end of the season and pushed Steve McClaren's Twente all the way to the line, the former England manager's side finally winning by just one point and a far inferior goal difference.
Mounir El Hamdaoui's arrival from Alkmaar after scoring 18 goals in 27 games last season, and 23 in 31 games the year before when he helped Alkmaar to only their second league title, seemed to herald more happy days for Ajax fans who have not seen their side win the Eredivisie since 2004.
Admittedly, El Hamdaoui is the joint leading scorer in the Dutch First Division with 11 goals but when he struggles, as he did against PSV, then the whole team struggles too.
Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez scored 35 goals last season but has got only seven so far this season and like so many of the players whose teams reached the semi-finals in South Africa, he seems be suffering from a post-World Cup hangover.
Saturday's match clearly showed that Suarez has lost a little of his sharpness in front of goal, twice he took too long on the ball when in a good position to have a shot, opportunities he would not have hesitated in taking last season.
To make matters worse, his reputation - already tarnished by his controversial handball against Ghana in their last 16 match in South Africa - was further damaged when he sank his teeth into the neck of PSV's Otman Bakkal, an offence for which he has received a two-match ban.
Despite the Champions League regularly throwing the big names of European football together, before this season Ajax and Real had not crossed paths since 1995. On that occasion, Ajax, the defending European champions, started off their run to another final with two victories over Madrid in the group stage.
A similar result on Tuesday would certainly make ex-Spurs coach Jol a happy man. If they lose, however, and Milan win at Auxerre, then Group G will be a done deal as far as the last 16 is concerned, with the Italians going through in second place behind Real.
One intriguing question is how many players will Real boss Jose Mourinho rest against Ajax?
Mourinho has always made it clear that he wants to end up on top of the group and a win, or even a draw, over Ajax would make that a certainty.
He could then afford to field a second-string side against Auxerre on 8 December.
If Mourinho puts out a team against Ajax that does not contain at least a decent number of his 'galacticos', he also risks being openly accused of hypocrisy after he took Sporting Gijon coach Manolo Preciado to task for a similar selection policy two weeks ago, which escalated into a public slanging match which got headlines across Europe.
Mourinho may rest several 'galacticos' on Tuesday night. Photo: Reuters
In case you haven't heard about it, Mourinho criticised Sporting for fielding a weakened team against Barcelona in a mid-week cup match immediately before they faced Real. Preciado responded by saying Mourinho would have been 'thrown in jail' for his comments had he still been in England and labelled him a 'scumbag'.
The Spanish football federation announced last Friday, five days after Real won 1-0 in Gijon, that their Anti-Violence Commission has asked for what it called 'appropriate disciplinary measures' to be taken against the pair, which could result in heavy fines.
The reason why Mourinho might consider resting some of his stars, and taking the resulting brickbats from the media, can be summed up in one word: Barcelona.
The first El Clasico encounter of the season takes place next Monday night in the Camp Nou. Matters are finely poised at the sharp end of the Spanish First Division, and Barcelona will take over at the top if they can inflict the first defeat in La Liga upon Real Madrid and Mourinho.
Thoughts of the impending trip to Barcelona - with Gonzalo Higuain and Sami Khedira already doubtful after getting knocks against Athletic - may be one reason why Ajax could be handed a 'get out of jail free' card by Mourinho.