Verdict: Total goals under 3.5
Best odds: 7/10
Ajax and Twente are set to do battle at the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam on Saturday evening, in what will be a very important match for both sides and may have significant impact on everything relating to the title race and the places leading into European competitions. There is, of course, a long way to go still, with this game being a part of the 16th round of the Eredivisie campaign, and time enough for any mistakes to be corrected, but with the top five teams currently within a four-point span, anything that happens directly between two of those will not be irrelevant.
The reigning Dutch champions are currently in second place with 31 points, as many as PSV Eindhoven have in third, but four less than Feyenoord at the top. Ajax are still the most efficient team in the league with 45 goals scored, obviously three per game on average.
That efficiency, however, did not relate to well in the Champions League, where they finished the group stage in third place behind Napoli and Liverpool, and they’re therefore set to shift lower into the Europa League for the knockout stages and face Union Berlin in the round of 16.
Ajax’s list of the last six competitive matches played includes a 1-3 victory away to Rangers in the last Champions League round, followed by a 1-2 defeat to PSV at home, a 2-2 draw at home against Vitesse, a 3-3 draw away to FC Emmen, a 1-1 draw away to NEC, and a 0-2 victory away to Den Bosch in the second round of the KNVB Cup.
The fact that there are no league wins in that list stands out painfully and goes some way to explain why they’re not topping the table anymore. It makes it all the more imperative for Alfred Schreuder’s men to buck the trend and book three points against a team that has come all too close in the rankings.
Ajax will, of course, have to do it without the help of Daley Blind. The long-serving defender has had his contract terminated six months early and has joined Bayern Munich as a free agent, and his place on the left defensive flank is likely to be taken once more by Owen Wijndal. Jorge Sanchez will be on the other side, with the centre-back pairing of Jurrien Timber and Calvin Bassey.
Ajax have, on the other hand, completed the signing of goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli from Villarreal, and having made a successful debut in the cup against Den Bosch, he is set to make his first Eredivisie appearance as well.
One who didn’t play against Den Bosch is Brian Brobbey, but the young striker is expected to lead the line on Saturday, flanked by Steven Bergwijn and captain Dusan Tadic. Edson Alvarez should be anchoring the midfield, joined in the area by Kenneth Taylor and Davy Klaassen.
Ajax may have the best attacking department in the league, but on Saturday, they’ll be facing the best defence in the league this season. Twente have conceded just nine goals in the previous 15 matches, and that, more than anything else, is the reason why they cannot be ruled out of the title race either.
As things stand at the moment, Ron Jans’ team sit two places behind Ajax, but with a deficit of just one point – a total of 30 – compared to the home side, with PSV squeezed in between. Behind them, AZ Alkmaar also have 30 and along with leaders Feyenoord, they complete the tale of five contenders in the race.
Twente have so far played just two competitive matches since the World Cup ended, and to see where their last-six run begins means going back to mid-October, when they beat Groningen 3-0 at home. Then they triumphed 0-1 away to Cambuur, beat RKC Waalwijk 3-0 at home, and drew 1-1 at home against Go Ahead Eagles. After the World Cup, they beat FC Emmen 2-0 at home, and eventually got past Telstar in the KNVB Cup by winning 3-1 at home.
Unlike Schreuder, Jans has two players confirmed as absent through injuries and one whose involvement is questionable at the moment, for the same reason. Right-back Joshua Brenet is out with a muscle problem, while veteran midfielder Wout Brama is out with an ankle injury.
Christos Tzolis is the one who is a doubt. The 20-year-old winger is on his way back from a knee injury.
Goalkeeper Lars Unnerstall will be between the posts, with the back four consisting of centre-backs Robin Propper and Mees Hilgers, left-back Gijs Smal and right-back Luca Everink.
Ramiz Zerrouki is expected to pair up with Michal Sadilek in the middle of the park, though Mathias Kjolo could be an option there as well. Sem Steijn will likely be a bit further up as the No. 10, with wingers Virgil Misidjan and Vaclav Cerny on either side, and striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel leading from the front.
As has been said, this is a very important match for both sides. It could see the gap between them rise to four points, or Twente overtake Ajax by two, or leave things as they are and allow the remaining three teams in the race a chance to gain some ground on both.
A narrow Ajax victory is to be expected, with not too many goals.
Verdict: Total goals under 3.5
Best odds: 7/10
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