Football: Critics turn against Ajax

EUROPEAN FOOTBALL

Ajax have a massive lead over PSV Eindhoven in the league, are still chasing the Uefa Cup, and are favourites for today's match against PSV. But some critics believe their form is slipping and that PSV could become only the second side to take a point off Ajax this season.

Ajax are 18 points ahead of PSV, have won 18 of their 19 matches and have scored 59, conceding only four. Many believe they have already sewn up the title, but that they performed best at the start of the season. In August and September, they won all eight of their matches and scored 36 goals. By November, they were scraping through with narrow wins and the media was asking what had gone wrong.

Their coach, Morten Olsen, believes that his players are drained and simply need the winter break to recharge their batteries. "Because of the overcrowded schedule, we are almost at the point where football has become work. That is not the aim... It must remain a paid hobby," he said.

Ajax have had no problems against weaker opposition, but have been struggling against the tougher teams. In the Uefa Cup, they lost their away leg to Udinese and only a Shota Arveladze goal 10 minutes from time saved them from a second-round exit. Last week, they travelled to lowly Bochum of the German league and were held to a 2-2 draw in the second leg of their third-round tie, although they breezed through to the quarter-finals 6- 4 on aggregate.

PSV began badly in Europe, with defeat at home to Dynamo Kiev in the Champions' League, but beat Newcastle United home and away and performed impressively in two 2-2 draws against Barcelona. PSV can also struggle against the minnows. They lost their unbeaten record against Willem II Tilburg two weeks ago, but they still know how to raise themselves for the big games.

For today's match, neither side has any serious injury worries. PSV will again be without their striker Luc Nilis whose ankle injury has ruled him out until the New Year. The Belgian international has been the club's top scorer for the past two seasons, but PSV appear to be managing in his absence and in their final Champions' League match against Barcelona, Gilles de Bilde and Boudewijn Zenden combined admirably.

One certain improvement on that showing is Jaap Stam's return to central defence. PSV have leaked at the back as their full-backs push forward. At Ajax, Dane Ole Tobiasen is out for the whole season, but the only question mark is Richard Witschge who has a groin strain.

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