Champions League Qualification Preview: OGC Nice vs Ajax Amsterdam
We’ve barely put the Confederations Cup in the rear-view mirror, but already football is upon us once again, as Nice seek to reap the rewards of their impressive 2016/17 season. Les Aiglons‘ third place finish earned them a place in the third round of the Champions’ League qualifiers, and this evening they host an Ajax side which, less than three months ago, demolished Lyon 4-1 in the first leg of last season’s Europa League semi-final, before scraping through 5-4 on aggregate. While Ajax have lost key players, they will be able to line up in a way not dissimilar to the eleven that won that first leg.
Bertrand Traoré and Kenny Tete have joined Lyon, while Jairo Riedewald has moved to Crystal Palace and Davy Klaasen to Everton, but only Traoré and Klaasen played both legs against Lyon. Traoré was an electric presence, but Justin Kluivert, despite his tender age, looks a dangerous attacking outlet, combining pace and ability on the ball, if not the goalscoring threat of the Burkina Faso international. Traoré’s goals will hardly be missed, though, as Ajax have resisted a host of bids for Kasper Dolberg, and the young Dane’s potency could be decisive in the tie.
While Ajax will enjoy a certain level of continuity with their personnel and their system, they will be playing their first competitive match under new manager Marcel Keizer, a former youth team manager. Keizer’s itinerant career has been rather undistinguished, but he will be more than familiar with the club’s attacking ethos and emphasis on youth, making the transition from the more experienced and accomplished Peter Bosz relatively seamless.
Bosz’s move to Dortmund was in part the result of Nice resisting the schwarzgelben‘s overtures for Lucien Favre. The Swiss manager, now entering his second season at Nice, was widely tipped for a return to Germany but has elected instead to stay on after Nice’s best season in forty years. Like Keizer, he has lost a few important players in the form of club captain Paul Baysse, right back Ricardo Pereira and Younés Belhanda, but he has also overseen a canny and underrated summer window.
The quartet of players brought in ranges from the raw (Jean-Victor Makengo) to the vastly experienced (Christophe Jallet) with Adrien Tameze and Pierre Lees-Melou falling somewhere in between, but each will have a part to play this season. Jallet brings European and international experience to a squad with little of either aside from Mario Balotelli and Dante, and he can be an important figure in the dressing room as well as a capable deputy to Arnaud Souquet. Makengo and Tameze are talented box-to-box midfielders, and could ease the potential sale of Jean Michael Seri, but for the moment, they provide needed depth in central midfield ahead of Wylan Cyprien’s return.
The team looks set to turn out in a 4-2-3-1, with Seri pushed forward to a playmaking role behind Balotelli, with Alassane Pléa and Valentin Eysseric on the flanks. While capable of retaining the ball, this team will again base their success on a solid defence, and will need one of Maxime Le Marchand or Malang Sarr to be on their game as a partner for Dante. The younger player looks to have a slight advantage given a solid pre-season, and will have to be sharp to ensure the clean sheet that will be crucial if Nice hope to advance – although there is a chance that both could play, should wantaway left back Dalbert be deemed unplayable.
Ajax will perhaps be a bit reckless in attack, looking for a crucial away goal, and Nice can expect to keep them at bay while trying to play on the counter, although they must be careful they don’t get caught out themselves. To that end, Favre may opt for a slightly more prosaic central midfield of Tameze and Remi Walter, with Vincent Koziello on the bench, looking to the pair’s work rate to offer protection at the expense of more attacking quality. That is not to say that Favre will approach this match negatively; rather, the Swiss recognizes the importance of taking a lead to Amsterdam next week. This should be the tie of the round as two young, talented, attacking teams lock horns.
OGC Nice (4-2-3-1): Yoan Cardinale; Arnaud Souquet, Dante, Malang Sarr, Dalbert Henrique; Adrien Tameze, Remi Walter; Valentin Eysseric, Jean Michael Seri, Alassane Pléa; Mario Balotelli
Ajax Amsterdam (4-3-3): André Onana; Joel Veltman, Davinson Sanchez, Matthijs De Ligt, Nick Viergever; Donny van den Beek, Lasse Schone, Hakim Ziyech; Justin Kluivert, Kasper Dolberg, Amin Younes
Predicted Score: OGC Nice 1-1 Ajax Amsterdam