Verdict: Away win
Best odds: 8/11
Liverpool are set to travel to Amsterdam where they will face Ajax in the opening round of the 2020/21 Champions League group stages on Wednesday evening at the Johan Cruyff Arena. The man whose name the stadium bears scored three goals the last time these teams met in a competitive game, back in 1966/67.
Ajax and Liverpool have been drawn in Group D of UEFA’s elite club competition, together with Italian side Atalanta and Danish champions Midtjylland, who play each other at the MCH Arena in Denmark at the same time.
The 2019/20 Eredivisie campaign ended with the standings on March 8th declared as final due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with Ajax sitting top of the table. However, they weren’t named as champions, given that they sat above second-place AZ Alkmaar on mere goal-difference with the season incomplete.
This summer, Ajax lost the services of winger Hakim Ziyech who joined Chelsea for a reported fee of €40m, as well as midfielder Donny van de Beek who now plays for Manchester United (€39m). Right-back Sergino Dest joined Barcelona for €21m, while centre-back Joel Veltman signed for Brighton and Hove Albion for €1m. On the other hand, they brought back midfielder Davy Klaasen from Werder Bremen for €11m, winger Antony from Sao Paulo for just over €15m, goalkeeper Marten Stekelenburg from Everton on a free transfer, 20-year-old midfielder Mohammed Kudus from Nordsjaelland for €9m, and right-back Sean Kleiber from FC Utrecht for around €4m.
After five rounds of the current season, they are in second place with 12 points, with four wins – Sparta away 0-1, RKC Waalwijk at home 3-0, Vitesse at home 2-1 and Heerenven at home 5-1 in the last round, as well as one defeat, away to Groningen by 1-0 earlier this month. Fierce rivals PSV Eindhoven are at the top with 13 points to their name, while Vitesse sit just below in third, also on 12.
Both Antony and Quincy Promes started the Heerenven match on the bench, but coach Erik ten Hag, whose team has no significant injury issues, is expected to recall both to the starting line-up on Wednesday.
The Merseysiders have been heavily mentioned in the press lately, and not all for good things. Having started the season in the Premier League well enough, by beating Leeds United 4-3 at home, Chelsea away by 0-2 and Arsenal at home by 3-1, they went on to suffer a shock 7-2 defeat at the hands of Aston Villa. This weekend saw them draw 2-2 away to Everton in the Merseyside Derby, but the result will have been of secondary importance compared to what else happened in that game.
Virgil van Dijk, Jurgen Klopp’s star defender, suffered an ACL rupture as a result of a horror tackle by Blues goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, while Everton forward Richarlison got a red card late in the game for recklessly mowing down Thiago Alcantara. In the second minute of stoppage time, captain Jordan Henderson scored what would have been a winner for Liverpool had it not been for the intervention of VAR which ruled it out for offside in the buildup. Such misfortune will have shaken Klopp’s men considerably, but if any team is capable of a positive reaction to a setback, it’s the ‘mentality monsters’, as the German manager described them once.
A repeat of the successes of 2019/20 was never expected, given that the Reds won the Premier League for the first time in 30 years and finished 18 points above second-place Manchester City, and the task of defending the title was always going to be a difficult one, but with Van Dijk out for the season, things just got much, much harder for the 19-time English champions.
Apart from the Dutch defensive stalwart, it’ll probably be a long time yet before we see midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain back in action. To add to the defensive woes, centre-back Joel Matip has also suffered a minor injury and is a big doubt for this clash, as is Thiago who is still recovering from Richarlison’s tackle. Midfielder Fabinho is likely to step into the heart of defence alongside Joe Gomez, with Klopp having plenty of options in the middle of the park. Adrian is set to continue in goal in place of Alisson Becker, though the Brazilian is closing in on a return following a shoulder injury.
The Ajax team which had a great run in the 2018/19 Champions League is all but gone – no Ziyech, no Van de Beek, no Frenkie de Jong, no Matthijs de Ligt… Even without Van Dijk and Thiago, Liverpool are a team which should prove too strong for the current crop of players at Ten Hag’s disposal. Mohamed Salah has been on hot form, and the goal he scored against Everton was his 100th for the club in all competitions. He will be keen to keep building on that number.
Verdict: Away win
Best odds: 8/11
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