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Wesley Sneijder's departure for Real Madrid CF has unsettled an AFC Ajax side who are looking to avoid a repeat of last season's early UEFA Champions League exit.
Henk ten Cate's team were knocked out in the third qualifying round by FC København last year, so are desperate to prevent another slip against Czech 1. Liga runners-up SK Slavia Praha. However, the €27m sale of influential midfielder Sneijder to Madrid marks another significant loss for the Amsterdam club.
"Wesley is a top player, so I understand why he has left for Madrid as there are not many better midfielders than him," said Ten Cate. The coach has also seen Ryan Babel leave for Liverpool FC this summer and Kenneth Perez head to PSV Eindhoven; he must now hope that Uruguay attacker Luis Suárez, signed from FC Groningen, can fill Sneijder's boots on the left wing.
With Jan Vertonghen, Robbert Schilder and Laurent Delorge back in training after injury problems, Ten Cate will be counting on his side to have the wherewithal to cope with Slavia and so escape a similar fate to 2006/07 – which made for a depressing debut for the coach. "The big difference from last season is that I go into this game having known the players longer than three weeks," he said. However, right-back George Ogararu has been ruled out for four weeks with a hamstring complaint.
Ajax can take comfort from the fact that Slavia's most seasoned European campaigner, Vladimír Šmicer, misses the first leg in Amsterdam through suspension having collected two yellow cards in the second qualifying round win against Slovakia's MŠK Žilina. Ante Aračić is also banned while Martin Latka and Dušan Švento are sidelined by injury.
Although the Prague club have failed in all five previous attempts to reach the group stage, coach Karel Jarolím has reason for optimism. They have yet to concede a goal this term following the arrival of keeper Martin Vaniak from FK SIAD Most and fellow newcomers Ladislav Volešák and Mickaël Tavares, both midfielders, have settled in superbly. With his team two matches into a new domestic campaign, and Sneijder no longer a factor in the tactical equation, Jarolím may even feel that the tide is turning in Slavia's favour. "I don't think they have a player who can step straight in and replace him," said the coach.
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