Ajax's slump gives confidence to Auxerre

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A few months ago Ajax would have been expected to automatically pick up three points away to Auxerre in their opening Champions' League match tonight. However, the Dutch team's fortunes have swung dramatically since they lost their title in the European Cup final against Juventus in May.

Now the French champions have every chance of a repeat of their victory over Ajax in the Uefa Cup quarter-finals in March 1993, a first-leg success that helped them eliminate the Dutch team.

Franck Rabarivony, one of four Auxerre players who survive from that match, said: "Ajax have a very Cruyff style, meaning they use wingers who play well wide and with very few touches of the ball. It's a very difficult style to play against, but we're going to try to do it for the second time. It's not unlike our game, but we're less technical, less clever. But maybe if we can raise our game, after a match or two, we'll get to their level."

The Auxerre coach, Guy Roux, who is five matches short of Robert Herbin's French record of 47 European matches in charge, does not believe Ajax should be underestimated just because they lost at Nijmegen on Sunday, a third straight away defeat without scoring this season.

"Ajax are still Ajax, even if they're down at the moment. It's essentially because matches in the Dutch championship are very tough," he said.

The match marks a departure for both sides, with Ajax rebuilding after the loss of key members of their fourth European Cup-winning side in 1995 and Auxerre taking part in the competition for the first time. Auxerre did not, however, spend the off-season specifically preparing for the Champions' League.

"That would have been suicidal for the club to change methods even if it had been feasible in a few months. We preferred to consolidate as we have usually done. It's true that may not be quite enough for the Champions' League, but it's the matches that will tell us that," Roux said.

While Ajax have lost Edgar Davids, Finidi George, Nwankwo Kanu and Michael Reiziger and sustained numerous injury worries and suspensions, Auxerre have had to plug gaps left by their departed backbone of Laurent Blanc, Corentin Martins and Chris-tophe Cocard. Australia's Ned Zelic has stepped into Blanc's boots and helped the Auxerre defence keep five clean sheets in six league games this season, with just one hiccup in a 2-1 away defeat at Strasbourg.

Ajax, deprived of Patrick Kluivert through injury, welcome back their winger Marc Overmars to European competition following injury in December 1995 to team up again in attack with the formidable Finnish striker, Jari Litmanen. Winston Bogarde, the Netherlands defender, is expected to pass a late fitness test.

Auxerre (probable): Charbonnier; Goma, West, Zelic, Rabarivony; Henna, Lamouchi, Moussa Saib; Tasfaout, Laslandes, Diomede.

Ajax (probable): Van der Sar; Bogarde, Marcio Santos, F de Boer, Reuser, R de Boer, Scholten, Musampa, Overmars, Litmanen, Babangida.

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