Fallen giants Ajax and Juventus aim to pick themselves up in the Europa League

Ajax v Juventus, Europa League, February 16, 2010

Ajax 7/4; Draw 9/4; Juventus 2/1

It’s impossible to think about the coming together of Ajax and Juventus without reopening the history books to recall when the respective Dutch and Italian giants were at the peak of their powers.

Back in 1973 it was the turn of Ajax to rule the world. Lead by the irrepressible Johan Cruyff and flanked by the brilliant Johnny Rep and Johan Neeskens, the Amsterdammers famously beat Juventus 1-0 in the European Cup final in Belgrade in a victory for total football over the Italian catenaccio style of play. (Watch the highlights here.)

The Italians, though, gained revenge 23 years later in Rome in the 1996 Champions League final. A year after Ajax’s kids had won Europe’s premier club competition beating AC Milan 1-nil, Ajax faced the Old Lady once again in the final. By this point though, Ajax were a team in transition, while Juventus, complete with Alex Del Piero, Gianluca Vialli and Fabrizio Ravanelli in their forward line, were the team on the up. Accordingly, an early Fabrizio Ravanelli strike in the final was cancelled out by Jari Litmanen. The match went all the way to penalties where Edgar Davids and Sonny Silooy missed their spot-kicks and the Bianconeri triumphed. (Watch the highlights here.)

How times have changed.

Juve now find themselves struggling to find their feet after a miserable first half of the season robbed the black and whites of both the Scudetto and Champions League dreams. The turn of the year saw coach Ciro Ferrara finally pay for Juve’s failures with his job, and that appears to have brought a modicum of cheer to the Turin giants having drawn two and won one under new coach Alberto Zaccheroni.

Juve will hope that last weekend’s 3-2 win over Genoa can prove a starting point from which to build their second half of the season upon. Despite dealing with a long injury list including Iaquinta, Camoranesi, Trezeguet, and Poulsen, Juve managed to squeeze past the Grifone courtesy of a Del Piero brace and even a goal from goal-shy Amauri to leave them hanging onto 6th-place in Serie A by their fingernails.

The win over Genoa was far from brilliant however, and Ajax will no doubt have taken note of the shaky performance from the former best-goalie-in-the-world, Gigi Buffon. Giorgio Chiellini aside, Juve’s defence has been causing much consternation ever since the season began, and the match against Genoa again proved what a soft centre the Old Lady has. Buffon was at fault for both goals at the weekend, and it comes as no surprise to learn the Juve have managed to record just one clean sheet in their last 16 matches. (Juventus are 12/5 to keep a clean sheet, 4/11 against.)

Much like Juve, Ajax’s poor start to the season has virtually ruled the Dutch powerhouse out of contention for the league title. But it’s far from all doom and gloom for Martin Jol’s men who, while they may not be part of the current European leaders, do have some obvious positives going for them.

Firstly, Ajax are currently in a rich vein of form. They are presently riding an eight-match unbeaten streak, including six victories, in which they appear to have cemented their top three Eredivise position after opening up a 9-point gap on fourth-placed Feyenoord.

Ajax’s leading light has unquestionably been Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez. With 23 goals in 23 games, Suarez is just-about still on course to break Coen Dillen’s famous Ajax goal-scoring record from 1957, where the striker bagged 43 goals in one season. Suarez has five goals in his last three matches, and he’ll lead the line alongside his Serbian strike-partner Marko Pantelic on Thursday night.

However it’s not all good news for Ajax, as they do have some weak-spots, particularly at the back. Keeper Maarten Stekelenburg never seems to instill too much confidence in his defence. And Ajax’s backline could definitely need a safe pair of hands as defenders Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Gregory van der Wiel are all promising but inexperienced 20-somethings who are still learning their trade. (Ajax are 11/5 to keep a clean sheet, 2/5 against.)

Picking a winner in this tie is a bit of a coin flip, with the team that wants Europa League glory the most likely to progress to the last 16. (Ajax are 2/1 to qualify, Juventus are 4/9.) That said, although Juve have shown signs of an upturn in the past few weeks, doubts remain over how much hunger the fallen Champions Leaguers will have for this tournament, particularly considering the fires which they still need to put out in Serie A.

101gg predicts: Ajax 1 – Juventus 1 (6/1)

Ajax 7/4; Draw 9/4; Juventus 2/1

Full match odds here.