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By Jules Marshall in Amsterdam
It is crunch time for the Dutch champions and their Israeli opponents on Tuesday night, with both AFC Ajax and Maccabi-Tel Aviv FC hoping to put recent troubles behind them and stake a claim for continued European football after Christmas.
Defeats by Juventus FC and FC Bayern München have left first-time opponents Ajax and Maccabi without a point or even a goal in Group C, and things have been getting worse for four-times European champions Ajax. On Saturday they suffered their first league loss since February against SC Heerenveen - who had never previously won at the Amsterdam ArenA - amid rumours of player dissent.
There have been reports of a split between the foreign and Dutch players in the squad after disagreements on the pitch at the weekend, which precipitated a meeting between players and coach to air their grievances. Coach Ronald Kooeman described the more lurid rumours as "untrue", adding: "It is a hard time for all of us, including the coach, and not helped by leaks of private meetings to the press."
Koeman has other concerns too. He described the groin injury that rules out Mauro Rosales and Tomas Galásek's absence through back trouble, as a disappointment. "They are the kind of players we need at the moment," he said. "Experienced and able to inject some calm."
Playmaker Raphael van der Vaart has also been injured but is expected to pass a fitness test. For all this, Koeman promised to play "Ajax-style" against their Israeli visitors. "If we play as we can play and not as we did on Saturday against Heerenveen, then we can win," he said.
'Tough to beat'
This game is part of a pivotal period for Ajax's season, for having slipped to fourth in the Eredivisie they visit unbeaten league leaders PSV Eindhoven on Sunday. However, Koeman is thinking only of Maccabi. "That is the most important game," he said. "
We have seen how hard Maccabi are to beat: Bayern needed a penalty and Juventus only scored from a corner, so we know they will be tough to beat."
Koeman, who admits that this game could be seen as a play-off for third place and a UEFA Cup slot, added: "We are playing at home so we must be favourites, but we respect Maccabi. They have a well-organised defence and a lot of physically strong players."
Maccabi coach Nir Klinger was happy to receive such plaudits, but is not getting carried away. "It is nice to hear Mr Koeman's praise," he said. "But we have to prove we deserve the compliment. We are playing a very good team, still one of the best in Europe despite their problems of the last couple of weeks."
Klinger's side are third in the Israeli Premier Division after being held 1-1 by bottom side Hapoel Nazereth FC on Saturday, and the coach admitted that Maccabi, like Ajax, were going through a rough patch. "We too are not in the best position," he said. "It is definitely a match between two teams under pressure."
Maccabi lost their two opening games 1-0 and Klinger reflected: "
We were unlucky against Bayern and Juve. We played well in both games and created more chances than I expected. It is just confidence and experience we miss." Oren Zeituni will replace Moshe Mishaelof (stomach), playmaker Liran Cohen has recovered from an ankle injury and defender Marcio Giovanini should also feature after appearing on Saturday despite a broken nose.
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