European Football: PSV prey on the complacency of Ajax

A REFRESHED Ajax travel to Eindhoven today to face second-placed PSV in a match the home side must win to stand a chance of hauling in the runaway Dutch league leaders.

Following last weekend's 5-1 thrashing of RKC Waalwijk, Ajax appear to be back on top form and show little sign of the rustiness they exposed before the six- week winter break.

PSV, rattled by talk that their coach, Dick Advocaat, may leave at the end of the season to join Rangers, had to rely on a last minute goal to overcome Graafschap Doetinchem 2-1 at the weekend. But they had a better time of it on Wednesday, beating Utrecht 4-1 to close the gap on Ajax to 12 points with 13 games left.

To have a realistic chance of overhauling Ajax, they need to win today to reduce the gap to nine points. That would be half the formidable lead Ajax held before the two met in Amsterdam in December.

Ajax, searching for their first league win over PSV since the 1994-95 season, have the added incentive of avenging that 4-3 defeat at home to PSV. Ajax have injury concerns over Jari Litmanen and Danny Blind, while PSV have a clean bill of health, except for Gilles de Bilde.

Ajax's strength has generally been at the back. The team have let in only nine goals in 21 games this season, but they will be mindful of the four PSV scored against them in December.

PSV have proved more porous, conceding 26 goals. Both sides, however, are potent up front with the highest average of goals per game in Europe.

Ajax have scored 67 times, PSV 62, although the Eindhoven side sometimes lack the killer blow. The team have lost only once this season, but has drawn seven times.

Ajax have room for complacency and they may have half an eye on Europe where they are in the hunt for the Uefa Cup. But, as in all major European divisions nowadays, the real interest, and money, for the top clubs is a place in the elite Champions' League - which Ajax missed out on this season following a poor domestic showing last season when they could only finish fourth.

With two Dutch slots for the Champions' League next season, Ajax and PSV expect to be representing the Netherlands. PSV know that any major slip-ups would give the chasing pack a sniff of that second spot.

Among those are Feyenoord, Vitesse Arnhem and Heerenveen - all eight points behind PSV. Feyenoord in particular have the pedigree to challenge for what has become a highly coveted second place.