Ajax was linked to Liverpool FC, Atalanta Bergamo and FC Midtjylland during the draw for the group stage of the Champions League on Thursday evening. Trainer Erik ten Hag already indicated that it could have been easier, while at the same time he also realizes that it will be interesting because each team has its own style. What do we know about these three opponents? An overview:
The Liverpool squad has many big names, although there have been few mutations in recent years. The English top club has been working with almost the same players for several years. In the summer of 2019, they did not attract a single big name, although that was different this summer. The realization that fresh blood needed to be added to the selection got through to Liverpool policymakers. Two major purchases were made with Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich) and Diego Jota (Wolverhampton Wanderers), while Konstantinos Tsimikas – who previously played on loan with Willem II – was taken over from Olympiakos Pireaus.
Furthermore, Liverpool also managed to retain its strongholds this summer. The lightning-fast and agile wingers Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah are linked to a transfer almost every summer, but even this summer they stayed The Reds faithful. The backs of Liverpool are also often praised. With Alexander Arnold on the right and Andrew Robertson on the left, Liverpool has world-class backs.
With Virgil van Dijk and Georginio Wijnaldum, Liverpool also has two Dutchmen in the selection. Van Dijk was taken over from Southampton for nearly 85 million euros in January 2018, but he has been worth every euro. Since Van Dijk took office at Liverpool – also count the recruitment of goalkeeper Alisson Becker – Liverpool has been rock solid in most matches in defensive terms.
Trainer: Jürgen Klopp
Do we have to introduce Jürgen Klopp? The 53-year-old German trainer is seen as one of the best trainers in the world and rightly so. After his playing career, Klopp became a trainer at FSV Mainz 05, the club he also played for. His work there earned him a transfer to the large Borussia Dortmund and he also made an impression with that club. In October 2015 he settled in Liverpool and soon people in England became acquainted with his ‘gegenpressing’. Liverpool, which had seen many lean years, once again became the top club it was as of old. Upon his appointment, Klopp made the promise to become champion within five years. In 2020 the time had finally come. A year earlier, Klopp also won the Champions League with Liverpool, while the final of the billion-dollar ball was reached earlier in 2018.
Last years in Europe
Liverpool has made a comeback in Europe in recent years. The English top club will also be one of the contenders for winning the Champions League next season. The club lost the final to Real Madrid in 2018, after which Tottenham Hotspur was defeated in the final a year later. In the past season – just before the corona crisis – it went wrong against Atlético Madrid in the eighth finals. Remarkable: in the 2016/2017 season, Liverpool did not play in a European context at all, because they finished number eight in the Premier League the season before and lost the Europa League final.
For many fans of Ajax it has been the dream for years to attend a awayday to make at Anfield. Now that due to the outbreak of the corona virus, there is played everywhere with no or very limited audience, you will always see that Ajax is now looting against Liverpool. The stadium can seat almost 55,000 spectators, but there will be no swirling Anfield for the time being.
With Atalanta Bergamo as opponent from pot three, Ajax is not lucky. The Italian team has been on the rise in recent years and it is doing so with a number of Dutch players. With Hans Hateboer (ex-FC Groningen) and Marten De Roon (ex-sc Heerenveen and Sparta), the selection of the Northern Italian club already knew two Dutchmen, while Robin Gosens (ex-Heracles Almelo) also has Dutch blood. With Sam Lammers, who came over from PSV, another Dutchman has joined.
It will not be easy for Lammers in Bergamo. With Duvan Zapata, Luis Muriel, Papu Gomez and Josip Ilicic, he has a lot of competition for the striker position. Atalanta Bergamo also has some good players in midfield. Well-known names are Mario Pasalic, Remo Freuler, Ruslan Malinovskyi and Aleksey Miranchuk.
Atalanta Bergamo plays in a 3-5-2 system, with Gosens and Hateboer acting as wingbacks. In the center of the back, trainer Gian Piero Gasperini has options such as Rafael Tolói, Berat Djimsiti, Cristian Romero, Mattia Caldara, Bosko Sutalo and José Luis Palomino.
Trainer: Gian Piero Gasperini
The name has already been mentioned: Gian Piero Gasperini. The former coach of Genoa CFC, among others, has been active at Atalanta Bergamo since June 2016 and that team has been working on something great ever since. The team consistently finished in the right-hand row of the Serie A in the years before, but in his first season Gasperini was already surprisingly fourth. In the years that followed, he was successively seventh, third and third again. Gasperini plays at Atalanta, as mentioned, in a 3-5-2 system, where high pressure is put on half of the opponent. “We have already played against such teams with Eintracht Frankfurt and Vitesse, but Atalanta is putting even more pressure on it,” said Ajax coach Erik ten Hag.
What is also striking about Atalanta Bergamo is the enormous scoring drive that the team has. In the previous season, no fewer than 98 goals were scored in Serie A. No team in the Italian league came close to that goal number. In comparison, champions Juventus scored ‘only’ 76 times. However, the number of goals conceded with 48 is a bit high. Atalanta Bergamo will continue to score happily in the new season. Torino (2-4) and SS Lazio (1-4) have already been put to the spotlight.
Last years in Europe
Where Ajax was the stunt team in the Champions League in the 2018/2019 season, Atalanta Bergamo was in the 2019/2020 season. In the group phase they started with three defeats in a row. Dinamo Zagreb (4-0), Shakhtar Donetsk (1-2) and Manchester City (5-1) all managed to beat the Italians. After a home draw against City (1-1), Dinamo Zagreb (2-0) and Shakhtar Donetsk (0-3) were then defeated.
In the eighth finals Atalanta Bergamo then dealt with Ajax bully Valencia. The Italians won no less than 8-4 in two duels. In the quarterfinals, Gasperini’s team was close to a major stunt. For a long time they led 1-0 against Paris Saint-Germain, but in the final minutes the later finalist still managed to take the win.
In the previous year Atalanta Bergamo had a disappointing European ‘season’. FC Copenhagen was already eliminated in the play-offs of the Europa League. In the 2017/2018 season, things went slightly better in the Europa League. They came first in a group that included Olympique Lyon and Everton, although they were eliminated against Borussia Dortmund in the sixteenth finals.
Atalanta Bergamo plays its home games at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia. This stadium can accommodate more than 21,000 spectators. A trip to Bergamo would also have been wonderful for the Ajax fan, but due to the corona virus, this adventure is also canceled.
That FC Midtjylland is participating in the Champions League can safely be called a small miracle. The Danish club, whose total selection value is estimated at just over 41 million euros according to Transfermarkt, had to survive three preliminary rounds and succeeded. Ludogorets Razgrad, Young Boys and Slavia Prague were eliminated.
The most famous player in the selection of the Danish club is possibly Pione Sisto. The attacker, who was once linked to Ajax, came over from Celta de Vigo this summer. Furthermore, the selection of FC Midtjylland has many foreigners. No less than fifty percent of the Danish club comes from another country. The selection has three Brazilians and four Nigerians, while there are also players with American, Canadian or Australian blood.
The Brazilian players represent the highest market value at FC Midtjylland, although this mainly concerns Evander. The 22-year-old attacking midfielder has a market value of seven million euros, the highest within the selection of the Danish opponent.
Trainer: Brian Priske
The trainer of FC Midtjylland is Brian Priske. Priske was previously an assistant coach at FC Copenhagen in the season that Ajax reached the Europa League final. That way he will already know Ajax a bit, although a lot has changed at the Amsterdam club since then. Life looks different for Priske too. The 43-year-old coach was first assistant coach at FC Midtjylland, after which he was left alone for the group in the summer of 2019. Initially as an interim trainer, after which he was officially appointed as head coach of FC Midtjylland in November.
In his first season as head coach of FC Midtjylland, Priske immediately became national champion, which meant that he qualified for the preliminary rounds of the Champions League. With FC Midtjylland Priske plays in a 4-2-3-1 system.
Last years in Europe
FC Midtjylland has not performed very much at Europe level in recent years. In the previous season they were eliminated in the preliminary rounds of the Europa League by Rangers FC, while a season earlier elimination was a fact in the play-offs of the Europa League by Malmö FF. Also in the 2017/2018 season FC Midtjylland already found its waterloo in the play-offs of the Europa League. A season earlier it went wrong against Osmanlispor in the same phase of the tournament.
The last season with some European success was 2015/2016. The English Southampton was defeated in the play-offs, making the group phase a fact. In the group stage they finished as number two, just below Napoli, but above Club Brugge and Legia Warsaw. In the sixteenth finals, Manchester United were beaten 2-1 in-house, after which the English won 5-1 at home and FC Midtjylland was eliminated.
FC Midtjylland plays its home matches in the MCH-Arena. This stadium can accommodate about 11.5 thousand spectators, although the chance of a trip to Denmark for the Ajax fans is very small.
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