While there are still dark clouds hanging above Amsterdam, last week’s come-from-behind draw against Nice showed an unexpected amount of resilience and determination in the Ajax side. No one would have blamed these players had they fizzled out after Balotelli opened the score, but instead Van de Beek’s equalizer sparked some much needed hope and optimism. Will the Ajacieden be able to maintain their second-half form and advance to the Champions League play-offs on Wednesday? Here’s what the insiders think.
Floris Roos – Blogger for AjaxLife
The joy of the game is starting to return inside of me, slowly but surely. For sure, the situation surrounding Nouri puts everything into perspective, but the players showed they know how to flip the switch last Wednesday. A huge result against a very good opponent in Nice, even more so considering the situation. I especially enjoyed the second half.
Because of this, I’m really looking forward to the first European home game of the season in a sold-out Johan Cruijff ArenA. Following the 1-1 in Nice, Ajax still have everything to play for. After an uneasy first half, the squad were able to bounce back after some adjustments at half time.
Afterwards, I was intrigued by the words new Ajax manager Marcel Keizer spoke. In front of the cameras, he made a calm and clear analysis of everything what went wrong in the first 45 minutes. Seriously sound words, with a pleasing Amsterdam accent, instead of the usual clichés deployed by most managers.
Yes, Ajax frequently had the ball, but it was also given to Keizer’s side by the French. The home side were waiting for sloppy errors in possession. That tactic looked like it was working, because Ajax couldn’t bring up the needed patience and started forcing the ball into midfield. This resulted in every turnover being a huge danger, because Nice have the ability to counter at high speed. And so, Ajax had the ball but Nice was by far the more dangerous side.
Keizer spotted it and called this out, resulting in a far better Ajax in the second half. The goal by Donny van de Beek, of all people, was remarkable in many ways. Donny has been viewed as the natural successor of Davy Klaassen for some time. That alone makes it very special for him to fill Klaassen’s boots by scoring an important goal, just like Davy used to do for us. The gestures during his celebration, referring to his friend Nouri and his family, were subtle and touching.
? A closer look at Van de Beek’s goal, courtesy of @AFCAjax. #nicaja pic.twitter.com/kPx4KOVglO
— AjaxDaily (@ajaxdailydotcom) 26 juli 2017
Despite Frenkie de Jong upstaging Lasse Schöne during his substitute appearance in Nice, I would field the experienced Dane in Amsterdam. Frenkie is knocking at the door but was brought into the game when the French were completely knackered. Give him that same role coming Wednesday. Good things come fast, I know, but we’re only at the very beginning of this season. His moment will arrive soon.
Lastly, I’d like to see David Neres get a spot in the starting line-up, replacing Justin Kluivert on the right wing. The latter is more impressive when playing from the left and can be used as a useful replacement for Amin Younes. I would like to see Neres play a number of games in a row. He looks threatening, but uses his left foot for literally everything. Sometimes, that looks rather poor on the right. Is his right leg even there?
Another thing; five(!) players picked up a yellow card last week. Last year, you could fall back on the reserves with suspensions and injuries but due to Riedewald, Tete and others leaving, we really need a boost to our numbers. One or two suspensions in the defense and we have a serious problem.
Back to next Wednesday: it’s going to be another tough challenge, but Ajax have the needed qualities to see it through. I have full confidence in a good ending.
Menno Pot – Writer and columnist
Ajax were by no means brilliant in France, but I have to admit: I was deeply impressed with the way they handled this fixture. They were better than I ever expected them to be under these circumstances. This was a major boost in many ways. Therefore: no changes to the line-up for now, it’s not about Neres or Schöne or Kluivert or any other individual. It’s about the team and I would stick to the same formation for now: if I were Marcel Keizer I would field the same eleven players.
The French will have to score, they will have to go over the top and out of their trenches at some point, but they won’t be in a hurry. They will take their time and wait for opportunities to counter-attack. Ajax will have to be very careful, it still is a tricky affair, but for some season… I think we’ll pull it off. The Johan Cruijff Arena will be sold out and Ajax looked more ‘ready’ for this job than I thought they would. It would be a fantastic start of August, after a terrible July, and it would make me even prouder of the boys than I already am.
Priya Ramesh – Writer and journalist
With the difference they made after coming on in the second half, there’s definitely reason for Frenkie de Jong and David Neres to merit places in the starting XI for the return leg. I think it may still be a 50/50 between De Jong and Schöne for the position in midfield, although personally, I think having Van de Beek at #6 and De Jong as the roving #8 would definitely be worth the gamble, and bring balance and dynamism to the midfield.
As far as the right wing goes, I think Neres should definitely start ahead of Kluivert. The Brazilian provides an attacking impetus and seems to possess a better nose for goal – which is ultimately what Ajax really need.
? Van de Beek’s second assist of the game allowed David Neres to make it three for Ajax. pic.twitter.com/YuHE7RL29m
— AjaxDaily (@ajaxdailydotcom) 16 juli 2017
In general, I think it helps that the ‘change’ of playing style from Bosz to Keizer (or lack thereof) is really not as much as de Boer to Bosz, and that foundation provides some optimism. Ziyech mentioned some time back that he wants to progress to a higher level here and prove critics wrong, and I think this will be a great occasion for him to start doing that. I think back to the home tie vs Lyon in the Europa League last season, and how Ajax stayed true to their own gameplan and took the French side by surprise. So to begin with, I hope Ajax do go out and try to play their own passing and pressing game.
If all else fails, I hope the fact that Mitchell Dijks has been retained proves beneficial to some effect; a Plan B of him coming on and sending in crosses to say, Huntelaar, is not ideal, but may be provide an alternative route if the passing lanes are cut out by Nice. Naturally, Lucien Favre’s side aren’t to be underestimated, but I hope Ajax can build on the good work in the first leg. I think this has the potential to go to extra-time, but Ajax have it in them to win. Possibly a 2-1 scoreline.
Finally, just wanted to end with a request to keep Nouri and his family in our thoughts. It’s hard to put into words how much of a tragedy this has been. Equally, no words seem sufficient or worthy.. Thoughts and prayers with you, Appie.
Bart Sanders – Ajax insider
Looking at the second half of the first leg, I refuse to believe Ajax won’t advance to the next round. The Amsterdammers were demolishing Nice but simply forgot to score one or two more goals. I must admit the French side was at least equal to Ajax during the first half, and also created a massive chance in the second.
I was happy to see that my proposed midfield took shape 74 minutes into the game. Frenkie de Jong played a wonderful 16 minutes and should be rewarded with a spot in the starting eleven. The same goes for David Neres, who showed more in 16 minutes than Justin Kluivert did in the 74 minutes before.
Based on the second half and the fact the Ajacieden will be playing in a sold out Johan Cruijff ArenA (and the assumption De Jong is starting), I think Ajax will win relatively easily. My bet: 3-0.
Yaya – Ajax insider
The first leg in Nice turned out as I expected beforehand. Ajax had most of the possession and pushed back their French opponent, who were trying to hurt the Amsterdammers on the counter. The Ajax side we saw in the first half didn’t even come close to resembling the team we so thoroughly enjoyed at the end of last season. It looked like the players weren’t used to each other, with lots of failed passes that were either too short or too hard.
In the second half we got to see the Ajax we want to see. Attacking down the wings, strong passing in midfield and the backline pressing high, becoming a lot more dangerous going forward. And while the only Ajax goal of the game was handed to us by the Nice goalkeeper, who other than Donny van de Beek to stand in the right position at the right time to lob the ball into the net and celebrate the goal for his best friend Abdelhak Nouri, by making a 34 sign with his hands.
The second leg at home won’t be any easier than the first match, but that second half definitely left a positive feeling. It will be interesting to see what the starting XI will look like following impressive performances off the bench from Frenkie de Jong and David Neres last week, who both had a bigger impact than the men they replaced; Lasse Schöne and Justin Kluivert. Personally I would pick these players: Onana; Veltman, Sánchez, de Ligt, Viergever; van de Beek, Schöne, Ziyech; Neres, Dolberg, Younes.
I’d replace Kluivert with the young Brazilian whilst keeping faith in Schöne, substituting the experienced Dane for De Jong after 60 minutes or so. The latter usually makes a bigger impact coming off the bench than Schöne does. But I don’t see Keizer changing his line-up from the first game.
My score prediction last week was correct, so let’s try that again. I think Ajax – with the crowd firmly behind them – by a small goal difference. Nice will try and hurt Ajax on the counter with the pace of Pléa upfront whereas Ajax are likely to control the match. I expect Dolberg to be the main man for the Amsterdam side, as he has often been in the European matches at home. He will score one of the two Ajax goals in a 2-1 win over OGC Nice, with the other goal coming from De Ligt.
Arco Gnocchi – Ajax insider
By scoring an away goal in last week’s draw, playing in a sold-out Johan Cruijff ArenA and with Super Mario ruled out of the return, it looks like we find ourselves being the favorites for tomorrow’s game. While I maintain that I’d prefer playing in the Europa League this season, by now we owe it to ourselves to at least advance to the next qualifying round.
As it was after Johan Cruijff passed away, I expect to take solace from being amongst so many Ajacieden in our stadium for the first time since the tragic events surrounding Appie Nouri. It will undoubtedly make for an extraordinary atmosphere.
Standing ovation for Johan Cruyff in the 14th minute. #ajax #ajapec [@AFCAjax] https://t.co/0RgkU2bTCW
— AjaxDaily (@ajaxdailydotcom) 4 april 2016
I expect a tight game, with Nice having to take more chances than they dared or were able to at home. For now, I think Keizer will stick to Schöne and Kluivert in the starting eleven. You don’t see players benched after one official game too often. I am very eager to see De Jong and Neres perform again, though.
So, my not very educated guess would be a 1-1 draw after 90 minutes, with Huntelaar coming off the bench to deliver us the victory in extra time.
Yordi Yamali – FC Afkicken host
I think our first game against the French side last week left us all feeling proud in the end, with Donny scoring the equalizer and the game plan we utilized in the second half.
I do not want to keep on repeating myself or the others who have pointed out the lack of depth in the squad, or the fact Keizer refuses to replace Schöne and Kluivert with De Jong and Neres, but I do believe Frenkie and David both showed we’re not the ones who are getting wrong.
I wasn’t impressed at all with Nice. Still, as always, things looked very frail in defense at times. Luckily Balotelli won’t be there to show up when needed. I am confident Ajax will go through to the next round, the atmosphere in the Johan Cruijff ArenA will be something special this evening. Goosebumps will be all over the place.
Sjimmie – Ajax insider
After a good result in the first game we should not expect a walk in the park for the return leg. I am sure you people haven’t forgotten about the games against Kopenhagen and Rapid Wien. But for once, I am optimistic. Optimistic because of the second half I saw. I saw what Ajax are capable of, even under these severe circumstances.
The biggest factor in tomorrow’s game should be our fans in the Johan Cruijff ArenA. It’s our first home game of the season and I expect the atmosphere to be superb. Not only to support the players on the pitch, but also in support of Abdelhak Nouri. If that doesn’t bring that x-factor to Ajax, I don’t know what else will.
Looking at the Nice squad the absense of Balotelli stands out. While his likely replacement Pléa is by no means a bad player, it does give the French side a lot less options in attack. Pléa is a fast and agile forward, but Nice cannot sit back and wait for the counter-attack. They must score, and Balotelli is capable of scoring goals. Also, Ajax will need to keep an eye out for Seri, as he was by far the most dangerous man last week.
Now, let’s talk about Ajax. If I were Marcel Keizer I would put Frenkie de Jong in my starting eleven. Once he entered the pitch last week something happened. I realize it was against a tired Nice squad, but every move he made was a delight to watch. I must admit though, I am very biased towards Frenkie.
And I would prefer David Neres over Justin Kluivert, just like I wrote last week. While Marcel Keizer stated Neres still needs to learn how to defend better, I believe he is a way better defender than Kluivert is. In the 70th minute of the game I would substitute Neres for Kluivert and let Justin benefit from the space, should Nice still be pushing forward for that much-needed goal.
I think this will be a very hard match once again, but Ajax will take the win in the end. I expect a low-scoring game because Nice won’t play all out attack from the start. It could even turn out to be a chess match, with the key battle taking place in midfield. Can Ajax keep Seri and Pléa isolated? If so, I see a 1-0 in the making. A score which sends Ajax to the next round of the Champions League qualifiers.