EUROPEAN football expert Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) picks out his favourite fancies from Wednesday’s Europa League action.
Ajax v Lyon | Wednesday 17:45 | BT Sport 2
Ajax’s young guns have captured the hearts of Europa League fans this season and the Amsterdammers appear undervalued in their quest to reach a first continental final since 1996.
The Dutch dynamos completed an incredible last-ditch extra-time turnaround in Schalke in the quarter-finals despite being reduced to 10 men in the 80th minute and now the former champions have Stockholm in sight.
As well as the standard style and swagger we’ve become accustomed to with Ajax outfits over the years, it’s the age of Peter Bosz’s charges that has really caught the attention of European football followers.
In the first leg of their quarter-final clash with Schalke, Ajax fielded a side featuring four teenagers, no player over the age of 27 and nine players under 21. In fact, only nine (35%) of their 26-man squad were born when the club won the Champions League in 1995 meaning 17 (65%) of the roster are 22 or younger.
Teenage sensation Kasper Dolberg has been earning rave reviews but the 20-year-old frame of centre-back Davinson Sanchez is being closely watched by a collection of the continent’s biggest clubs after a series of commanding displays at the heart of the Amsterdammers defence.
Sanchez will need to repeat his heroics here with fellow centre-half Joel Veltman and full-back Nick Viergever suspended for Wednesday’s first leg. Kenny Tete and Jairo Riedewald are in line to replace the banned pair in an undoubted blow for Bosz.
Nevertheless, I’m confident the Dutch hosts have enough in their armoury to avoid defeat here and 3/4 (BetVictor) quotes on Ajax off a scratch 0 start on the Asian Handicap line are generous enough to support.
Bosz’s men squeezed past FC Copenhagen following a first leg reverse in Denmark and were rather tame when overcoming Legia Warsaw in their first knockout tie But a splendid display saw off Schalke here and the Amsterdammers boast a wonderful home record.
PSV Eindhoven are the only visitors to depart without defeat since August across all competitions (W20-D1-L0) with the Dutch giants scoring at least two goals in 11 of their past 12 in the capital. What’s more, Ajax boast a 100% home Europa League record this term, recording five clean sheets in six.
No European foe has pocketed victory in 12 attempts at the Amsterdam Arena and Ajax arrive at the semi-final stage having attempted the most shots (187) and efforts on-target (76) of any team in this season’s competition.
Defeat in their last outing at PSV has meant Eredivisie glory is unlikely to be attainable – Ajax trail Feyenoord by four points with two games to play – but having the weekend off has allowed the hosts to rest, recuperate and plot Lyon’s downfall on Wednesday night.
Lyon’s key injuries
Visitors Lyon were dominated for long stretches of Friday night’s trip to Coupe de France finalists Angers but managed to sneak a 2-1 triumph despite the injury-enforced absences of Alexandre Lacazette and Memphis Depay.
Depay remains unavailable for Europa League duty whilst boss Bruno Genesio is sweating on the fitness of Lacazette. To make matters worse, midfield talisman Corentin Tolisso limped off and is rated a major doubt. Should their top scorer and/or star all-rounder miss out, Les Gones would be significantly weakened.
Lacazette has scored over 30% of Lyon’s goals across all competitions and intriguingly, Friday’s win at Angers was the first time in five away days this season that Les Gones have scored on their travels without the French international.
Genesio’s group have also been beaten twice in four games as guests without Tolisso – at Monaco and Guingamp – with their only triumphs arriving at no-hopers Metz and Dinamo Zagreb in the same sample.
Worrisome away record
Indeed, the fortunate victory at Angers was only Lyon’s third in 11 on their travels and although they’ve experience of winning on Dutch soil already this campaign – thrashing AZ Alkmaar 4-1 away – they’ve also been beaten in their past two on the road in this competition.
However, I will express an inkling of caution here. Les Gones have scored in five of six away European fixtures (W2-D1-L3) in 2016/17 and it wouldn’t be a great surprise to see them get on the scoresheet again here, hence why I’m backing the 0 start on the Asian Handicap line.
The pair have massively contrasting goals trends so again I’m happy to swerve such selections and focus on investing faith in Ajax to avoid defeat.
Home teams in the first leg of Champions League and Europa League semi-finals over the past five seasons have a W15-D4-L1 return and since 2000, home sides have gone W19-D12-L3 in the 34 first legs of Europa League semi-finals, so the stats are definitely in our favour.
Ajax v Lyon – Ajax 0 Asian Handicap (3/4 BetVictor)