What: Europa League (Round of 32)
Who: Anderlecht vs Ajax
When: Thursday 17th February, 2011, at 18:05 UK Time
Where: Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, Brussels, Belgium

Clean Sheet Mentality to Fight European Malaise

With four matches left in the Jupiler Pro League regular season, Anderlecht are firmly topping the table, three points ahead of Genk. Domestically, the Brussels-based side appear to be unstoppable. Goalkeeper Silvio Proto especially has the magic touch and is unbeaten for 750 minutes, having not conceded a goal since the 5th December clash against Zulte Waregem. Proto is just 22 minutes away from the breaking the club’s record, currently held by Jean Trappeniers.

Even when the Belgians have not been performing at the top of their game, as was the case at the weekend against Cercle Brugge – the visitors were only finally beaten in the dying moments of the match – Anderlecht always seem to be able to find a way to come out as winners. In truth, it should not be surprising, the Belgian giants can call upon some of the league’s most talented players, like Mbark Boussoufa, Romelu Lukaku (who has yet to score in 2011), Matias Suarez, Lucas Biglia and Jonathan Legear.

In the winter window Anderlecht managed to keep hold of Boussoufa and Lukaku, despite serious interest from abroad. "For Lukaku, we refused an offer that was as big as our whole budget", said club chairman Roger Vanden Stock. The duo are expected to play a key role in the European campaign, an arena in which the Belgians have yet to impress, winning just two of their six group games to advance this far.

Still Looking for Consistency

First appointed as caretaker coach upon Martin Jol’s resignation, Frank de Boer has had a positive impact at the Amsterdam ArenA and gained a permanent deal. However, Ajax still look too inconsistent to become serious title contenders in the Eredivisie; maybe the Europa League will offer silverware. It is on the road that Ajax seem to have most of their problems, losing 3-0 at Utrecht earlier this year and dropping more points when a 2-0 lead was cut to 2-2 by Roda JC last Sunday.

Roda’s Belgian coach Harm van Veldhoven has had his say on this match. "Ajax have a lot of skilled players, like Christian Eriksen and Gregory van der Wiel. However, in my opinion, Anderlecht have more quality, especially up front." Van Veldhoven’s comments are not a surprise given that Ajax lost two of their four strikers last month: Luis Suarez was sold to Liverpool, while Mido terminated his contract by mutual consent. With only Dutch-Moroccan Mounir El Hamdaoui – the club’s top scorer this season with 16 goals – and the permanently injured Argentine Dario Cvitanich left, De Boer must sometimes push midfielder Siem de Jong into the attack.

For the Belgian pair of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderwierled in the heart of Ajax’s defence, this clash is a personal derby of sorts. "We are not in our best moment", admitted Vertonghen, "but I watched Anderlecht play last Saturday and I don’t think they are either. Both teams however are good. In my opinion, the chances are 50-50."


Recent form

Mechelen 0–0 Anderlecht (30/01; Jupiler Pro League)
Anderlecht 2–0 St. Truiden (05/02; Jupiler Pro League)
Anderlecht 1-0 Cercle Brugge (12/02; Jupiler Pro League)

Nac Breda 0-3 Ajax (30/01; Eredivisie)
Ajax 2-0 De Graafschap (04/02; Eredivisie)
Roda Kerkrade 2-2 Ajax (13/02; Eredivisie)

Players to watch

Anderlecht – Mbark Boussoufa: Last summer the Dutch-Moroccan playmaker seemed very close to moving to a bigger league, yet six months later Boussoufa is still in Brussels, leading Anderlecht to their second league title in a row. This season the former Chelsea youngster has clocked up 11 goals and 18 assists, and has picked up his third – and second in a row – Belgian Footballer of the Year award. Anderlecht’s chances of making a splash in the Europa League depend very much on Boussoufa. Right winger Matias Suarez could be a key performer too, popping up with assists for the strikers, or scoring himself – he has nine goals so far.

Ajax – Miralem Sulejmani: The Serbian forward has a long way to go to repay Ajax the €16.25M they sent to Heerenveen in the summer of 2008 for his services. Under De Boer however, Sulejmani has received another chance to impress, being deployed as the right winger in the new coach’s 4-3-3 system. It seems to have paid off, with the Serbian being amongst Ajax’s best performers this year, with three goals and two assists in his last five Eredivisie games. His speed can do real damage to Anderlecht. Established performers like keeper Maarten Stekelenburg and midfielder Demy de Zeeuw will also be vital for Ajax.

Match Prediction

Which club comes into this at a disadvantage? Anderlecht with their poor run of European performances? Or Ajax with their inconsistency and troubles on the road? The Belgians must take to the pitch in better heart, due to their strong domestic displays. However, Ajax’s European campaign has been more impressive than Anderlecht’s, with victories over teams like Dynamo Kyiv, Auxerre and AC Milan. Defender Jan Vertonghen is surely right when he calls the game as a 50-50 clash. This does look tight and should finish 1-1 or 2-2.

For top betting tips and a wide range of markets on Anderlecht v Ajax visit OLBG.