PSV Eindhoven v Rangers
The Eredivisie league leaders have managed to continue their title challenge in spite of losing key players throughout the season. Jonathan Reis started the term with eight goals in ten games but has had his season curtailed by knee ligament injury, while creative midfielder Ibrahim Affelay was sold to Barcelona in January.
Much of this consistency has been down to the talents of Ola Toivonen and Balazs Dzsudzsak, the industry behind PSV’s endeavour. Given the lack of a prolific goalscorer the pair have had ever more importance placed on their roles behind the main striker – most often Marcus Berg – and have found the net 27 times between them. Jeremain Lens, the 23 year old former AZ forward, usually lines up on the right side of the roving trio of players behind Berg.
Fred Rutten usually has PSV line up with a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Orlando Engelaar and reigning Canadian player of the year Atiba Hutchison anchoring the midfield, allowing Toivonen free reign in the centre, Lens on the right and Dzsudzsak a marauding left sided forward role. Wilfred Bouma and Marcelo have been the preferred central defensive pairing, although regular left back Erik Pieters can operate there if needed. Bulgarian right-back Stanislav Manolev usually completes the defence with former Manchester City goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson.
PSV have been in exceptional form domestically, and have lost just five matches in all competitions this year, one of which was on penalties to title rivals Twente in the Cup. PSV certainly have more creativity, but Rangers have proved dogged and stubborn opponents for better teams than the Dutch leaders. Walter Smith’s side will probably need an away goal given how effective PSV have been outside of the Netherlands this season.
Ajax v Spartak Moscow
After a comprehensive 4-0 victory over AZ at the weekend, Ajax look in good shape for their upcoming match with Spartak Moscow.
Despite an internal dispute with disgruntled top scorer Mounir El Hamdaoui, Frank de Boer has won plaudits both for his maintenance of the Ajax traditions and the team’s results on the field. Although it once seemed impossible, Ajax have now gone seven years without an Eredivisie title, and while PSV and Twente have been setting the pace, it is credit to De Boer that Ajax remain in contention despite the loss of Luis Suarez to Liverpool and Urby Emanuelson to Milan in January.
As ever, Ajax rely on a batch of exciting young players; likely attacking trio Miralem Sulejmani, Siem de Jong and Lorenzo Ebecilio have an average age of just 21. Since El Hamdaoui’s banishment, de Jong has operated as the central striker with the pace and guile of Sulejmani on the right, and Dutch Under 21 Ebecilio on the left.
The midfield is no less youthful, with highly rated Danish international Christian Eriksen likely to instigate attacks from the centre. A relative veteran at 27, Demy de Zeeuw is the oldest outfield player likely to start and operates in the Arie Haan/Edgar Davids role. The fantastically named Cameroon internationalist Eyong Enoh patrols the area in front of the defence.
Vurnon Anita and Gregory van der Wiel are full-backs in the classic Ajax mould, and Belgian central pairing Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen have consistently improved throughout the season. There is a certain inevitability that at least two of the four, as well as goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg, will move on to pastures new in the summer.
Should Ajax opt for this lineup, the average age of the eleven will be just 22 years old. Were it not for the ruthless nature of the modern transfer market there is every reason to believe they could emulate successes of the mid-90’s.
Spartak, like Zenit, have yet to kick off their season and may find the Amsterdam ArenA a far from ideal preparation. The Dutch side have been in good form in Europe, comfortably seeing off a decent Anderlecht side, and only missing out on progress in the Champions League to Real Madrid and AC Milan. There is certainly the talent for a little further progression in this competition.
FC Twente v Zenit
Although there has been a slight stutter to Twente’s domestic form, they are still well placed to compete on three fronts this season. Sitting three points behind leaders PSV in the Eredivisie, the reigning champions are also in the KNVB Cup final and the Europa League.
Although nominally a 4-2-3-1 formation, Michel Preud’homme’s tactics often switch to a more traditional 4-3-3 depending on available personnel. A central defensive partnership of Peter Wisgerhof and Douglas, the tempestuous Brazilian will likely be flanked by Belgian left-back Bart Buysse and adventurous Venezuelan Roberto Rosales. Former Liverpool goalkeeper, Nikolay Mihaylov has been first choice shot-stopper this season.
Given that Twente will want to exercise a little more caution for their European campaign, Preud’homme will likely start the influential Theo Janssen with either Wout Brama or Denny Landzaat. Luuk de Jong, brother of Ajax’s Siem, will operate behind Marc Janko with Nacir Chadli on the left. Costa Rican playmaker Bryan Ruiz is unlikely to be fit, so Emir Bajrami will fill in on the right hand side.
Twente have already excelled against Russian opposition in Rubin Kazan, but reigning champions Zenit are likely to be a far more obstinate proposition. Given that the St Petersburg side have yet to start their season, Twente may have a match-fitness advantage. However, with the second leg in Russia, and with the creativity of Bryan Ruiz potentially missing, the Dutch side may be forced to concentrate their efforts on domestic matters.