AFC Ajax were down as outsiders in Group D even before a ball had been kicked, and they remain long shots to qualify after taking just a single point from their opening two fixtures. All is not yet lost, though, though coach Frank de Boer admits that six points are now the minimum requirement for his side from their double-header against GNK Dinamo Zagreb.
De Boer told UEFA.com: "The two matches coming up against Zagreb could be decisive for us to at least secure third position. But in the end we want more, and that's to secure second place or [even] first. So these two matches are crucial for us – we actually have to take six points from them."
Four-times European champions, Ajax were last in the knockout rounds in 2005/06 and last season finished third in a section that included Real Madrid CF and AC Milan. De Boer's men find themselves pitted against Madrid once more, and went down 3-0 in the Spanish capital on 27 September, a fortnight after an opening home draw against Olympique Lyonnais.
De Boer, who won the UEFA Champions League with Ajax in 1995, acknowledged that his charges faced two formidable opponents in Madrid and Lyon – and a steep learning curve with it. "They have so much experience in the Champions League – Lyon play there every year and almost always make it into the quarter-finals; Madrid, the semi-finals [last season]. That's a fantastic experience for our players, and you can see that the tempo is sometimes a bit too high. But it's a great learning experience."
The fact Ajax have taken only a point so far is not what De Boer would have wished for and he knows that getting that much-needed first win will not come easily in Zagreb either. "Madrid played there, and they won 1-0 [but] it could easily have been 2-1 to Zagreb. At home especially they're a very good team with very fanatical fans, and not easy to beat. They also have many good players there, so it won't be easy."
That said, De Boer, who led the Amsterdammers to the title in his first campaign as coach, still believes in his players. "I think we have a very talented group," he said. "If everyone is in top shape and pulling in the same direction, then we have nobody to fear, and we can make it difficult for any opponent. I am sure of that." He will hope his players reward that faith on Tuesday night.
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