GREAT ESCAPE THE ONLY WAY FORWARD NOW

Three goals down from the first leg, Feyenoord host Ajax in the playoff semi-final return Sunday lunchtime in need of little short of an act of god if they are to progress to a two-legged Champions League qualification face off against AZ or, more probably, FC Groningen. As if that wasn’t enough, Erwin Koeman’s team will have to turn things around without red-carded Romeo Castelen and André Bahia. But the prize is not only a shot at Europe’s premium tournament of course, but also a chance to expunge the memory of a catastrophic Thursday night in Amsterdam.

Koeman will no doubt hammer into the players the fact that Ajax didn’t make much of an impression for the opening 25 minutes of the first leg. Urby Emanuelson in particular looked weak, giving Romeo Castelen a wealth of opportunities to cause alarm in the Amsterdam defence early doors. Coach Danny Blind was understandably delighted with Thursday’s result, but he did admit that his young back still has room for growth. ‘Urby is a slow starter who occasionally fails to turn up for the first quarter of an hour, as was the case now. It meant that Feyenoord were able to threaten a couple of times, after which he recovered.’ Those words may be just the loose end Feyenoord will be able to work on to unpick the Ajax armour. Blind for one is aware that there is no sign of the portly female vocalist yet, never mind her breaking into a tune. ‘This is a support in the back and it’s a good starting point, but we aren’t there yet,’ admitted Blind, who also acknowledged that the result flattered his side.
 
That being said, it will take a gargantuan effort from Feyenoord if they are to sweep into the playoff final. In addition to the three-goal deficit, which brings with it a need to press forward and so also a weakness at the back waiting to be exploited – away goals count double! – Erwin Koeman will have to do without two first-team regulars Sunday. André Bahia and Romeo Castelen are both ruled out of the tie, after each picking up a red card in the first leg. Those interested in how Koeman plans to cope with these suspensions will have to wait until the day of the match, because Feyenoord train behind closed doors ahead of the fixture.

On the face of it the coach is likely to hand Serginho Greene Bahia’s regular role in defence, with Hofs returning to the starting eleven alongside Paauwe in midfield. Ali Boussaboun looks like a good bet to replace Castelen too. Christian Gyan’s inclusion depends on the fitness of Pieter Collen. The Belgian missed the Arena fixture with a slight hamstring problem, but has targeted a Sunday return. The Feyenoord coach could surprise everyone of course, by handing Pierre van Hooijdonk a start for instance.

Whatever the formation, Feyenoord will need a huge team effort to roll Ajax over and make the final. 


CHAMPIONS LEAGUE PLAYOFF SEMI-FINAL SECOND LEG
Feyenoord – Ajax
Sunday 23 April, 12:30 at De Kuip
Referee: Haverkort
 
PROBABLE LINE-UPS
Feyenoord: Lodewijks; Collen (Gyan), Vlaar, Greene, Bosschaart;  Hofs, Paauwe, De Guzman; Boussaboun, Kuyt, Kalou.

Ajax: Stekelenburg; Boakye, Heitinga, Vermaelen, Emanuelson;  Galasek, Maduro, Boukhari; Rosales, Huntelaar, Rosenberg. 

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