By Theo Ruizenaar
When the draw was made for the UEFA Champions League second group stage, AFC Ajax coach Ronald Koeman predicted that matches against Arsenal FC, AS Roma and Valencia CF would offer his young team the perfect grounding in top-class European football.
If Ajax can beat Spanish champions Valencia on Tuesday, and Arsenal defeat Roma, then the Dutch side will be able to put the lessons of Group B into practice at an even higher level of competition. The goal for Koeman and company is to become the Netherlands' first quarter-finalists since Ajax in 1997. "I'm sure a win will be enough for us to go through," Koeman said.
'Full of confidence'
Ajax withstood considerable Valencia pressure to take a point from the Spanish champions in November, Miguel Angulo equalising Zlatan Ibrahimovic's goal in stoppage time at the Mestalla. Koeman's team go into the return match "full of confidence", and the coach's assertion that "we have improved since then" is borne out by their position as joint group leaders alongside Arsenal. "
Our performance was not good at the Mestalla; it will be a closer match tomorrow," he said.
Ajax's cause is helped by the inclusion of Rafael van der Vaart, who should play alongside Ibrahimovic. The 20-year-old Dutch international made his comeback from a thigh injury at the weekend, scoring twice in a 5-0 win at FC Zwolle. His availability is a boost, given Nikos Machlas's midwinter switch to Spain and the likelihood of Ahmed Hossam 'Mido' following him there, provided a loan move to RC Celta de Vigo receives international clearance.
Koeman, who could deploy Nigel de Jong in right midfield ahead of the more offensive Andy van der Meyde, added: "We have to keep the right balance and look after our defence. They have to go for a win, while we will still be in control if we draw."
While Ajax enter the game on the back of home and away draws with Arsenal, Valencia suffered a demoralising 3-0 home defeat by AS Roma on Matchday 10, leaving them third in the section. Another loss could end their European hopes. "We know what is at stake in Amsterdam," striker Mista said. "
We will be treating it like a final because we are playing to stay in Europe."
Rafael Benítez's men - a point behind Ajax and Arsenal but two clear of Roma - suffered another setback when beaten 1-0 at home by Club Atlético de Madrid on Saturday. "We are all disappointed at our recent results," Mista continued. "But I think we can recover our form and put an end to this bad patch."
Key to any recovery will be Argentinian playmaker Pablo Aimar, who returned from injury against Atlético. "It's an honour that people consider me the leader of Valencia, but I prefer us to perform as a team," he said. "We have to learn to live up to our billing as favourites - and play like that even when we are away from home." Starting on Tuesday night.
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