By Michael Harrold
AFC Ajax's visit to Highbury in Group B of the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday night will be one to relish for Arsenal FC strikers Dennis Bergkamp and Nwankwo Kanu as they renew acquaintances with a club at which they enjoyed much success.
The duo made their names at Ajax, Bergkamp scoring 103 goals in 183 games while Kanu enjoyed the ultimate success, winning the Champions League with the Amsterdam club in 1995.
On a high
With Arsenal gaining momentum at home and in Europe, both sides are looking to match that feat this season. While Ajax may have slipped off the pace in the Eredivisie, the English champions come into the match on a high, top of the Premiership and on the back of a comfortable 2-0 win at Manchester United FC in the FA Cup. Arsène Wenger's confidence in his squad is such that Bergkamp and Gilberto Silva were rested for that match while leading scorer Thierry Henry started on the substitutes' bench.
"It is now that we go into the decisive step," Wenger said on Monday. "It is of huge importance. Two massive games to qualify, although I think the second game will be dictated by what happens in the first.
It is in the core of my team to do well in the Champions League, there is a real mental will. There is a pressure to do well in this competition, but it is a good pressure. We have worked very hard for the last five years to be in the position we are in. We have learned a lot and now we know we have the capability to do it."
Best since 1995
However, wrestling Group B supremacy from an Ajax side considered to be Amsterdam's best since that 1995 triumph presents a different challenge. After winning the League and Cup double within six months of arriving at the club, coach Ronald Koeman has taken his young side to within sight of the last eight of the Champions League. Just reaching the second stage was considered an achievement in the Netherlands, but since then a draw in Valencia and victory against AS Roma have raised expectations and moved Ajax to the top of the group, level on four points with Arsenal.
Because of injuries, the Ajax side on Tuesday could include seven players under the age of 23. Not that the youngsters are likely to be daunted as Arsenal have won just once in their past five Champions League games at Highbury. Unfortunately for Koeman, influential striker Jari Litmanen is just one of a number of players ruled out through injury, with Rafael van der Vaart, Mido, John O'Brien, Viktor Sikora and Wamberto also missing. However, captain Cristian Chivu and Tomáš Galásek return from suspension, while Arsenal could welcome back Fredrik Ljungberg after illness and injury.
Ajax have only won once away to an English club, beating Arsenal 1-0 at Highbury in the 1971/72 European Champion Clubs' Cup. Ajax went on to win the competition that season and though Koeman may argue his young side are not yet ready to emulate that feat, a victory on Tuesday might just convince him otherwise.
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