Europa League Preview : Ajax v Olympique Lyonnais
Given everything Lyon have been through recently, it seems slightly ironic – if not portentous – that their next game is against a character from the Iliad.
Fourth in Ligue 1, the last couple of weeks for OL have seen them losing 4-1 at home to Lorient, losing any chance of the Champions League next season, their fans taking to their own pitch to avoid being pelted by missiles, their players being embroiled in fan/staff trouble at Bastia, being kept awake by Besiktas ultras setting off flares on the Bosphorus, going to extra time, going to penalties, losing to Monaco, not looking terribly convincing despite winning at ten-man Angers, and having severe yips on Alexandre Lacazette and Corentin Tolisso being fit for this.
The last thing they need is more excitement, frankly. Jean-Michel Aulas might not be able to take much more. A routine win would be lovely.
That seems unlikely.
Ajax are currently second in the Eredivise, four points behind Feyenoord with two games to play. Losing to PSV in the last round may have done for their league campaign, but they face bottom-of-the-table Go Ahead Eagles (ironic… ed.) at the weekend. They finished top of Group G – ahead of other semi-finalists Celta Vigo (who play Manchester United tomorrow) before seeing off Legia Warsaw, Kobenhavn and Schalke in the knock-out stages. They’re up for this. They’re young, pacy, and have an interesting disciplinary record – their 39 yellows is the most by some distance in the competition, plus three red cards.
UEFA are going big on Ajax being unbeaten in their last 12 home European ties, and while this includes this season’s failure to qualify for the Champions League, losing 4-1 away in Rostov, they have also kept a clean sheet in five of their six home games – all wins – in their Europa campaign (a 3-2 over Celta the only blot on that copy-book). The second leg against Schalke also saw their character: having won the home leg 2-0 with a double from Davy Klaasen, they were taken to extra time by the Germans who then proceeded to go 3-0 up before Ajax scored twice to ensure progression.
Meanwhile OL were in CL group H and finished third behind Juventus and Sevilla, taking a point off each and not losing by more than one goal. One interesting stat is that both teams have scored 19 goals in the Europa League – it’s just that thanks largely to Ajax’s compatriots AZ, Lyon have done it in half as many games. Genesio’s men are full of forward thrust and the occasional screw-up at the back, which hopefully bodes well for an interesting game for the neutral – if a nailbiting early evening for les Gones.
Lacazette and, possibly more importantly, Tolisso are both present for the trip to Amsterdam. For Ajax, two of their older – if not calmer – heads, defenders Nick Viergever and Joel Veltman, are suspended. Ajax are favourites, but OL will be looking to break their run of home clean sheets – in this, both teams to score seems likely. An away goal would be useful – and while the odds are against them, if Lyon can stay focussed, they could also break Ajax’s run of home wins.