Ajax v Atalanta: Italians can lead goals charge

Ajax and Atalanta play off for a Champions League last-16 berth on Wednesday and Andy Schooler is backing the Italians to win a goal-filled game.

Ajax v Atalanta
Wednesday 9 December, 17:55
Live on BT Sport 1

Straight shoot-out for second spot

There is much to like about this game.

The equation is simple - Ajax must win to reach the knockout stage, Atalanta need only a draw.

That sets things up nicely for what will be a battle between two sides who simply like to play.

Both managers have an attacking mindset and their teams play a very watchable brand of football. It should be worth tuning in.

In terms of the match resultAjax are favourites but at 2.36 it's clear that Atalanta are fancied by the market to make in through to the last 16.

Ajax aim to avoid third straight loss

The hosts were rather unfortunate to lose in Liverpool last week, although the same could not be said of Saturday's 2-1 home Eredivisie defeat to Twente - midfielder Davy Klaassen described their performance as "very bad" as they gave the ball away far too often and offered up plenty of chances.

The Dutch, who have lost three of their last five at home in Europe, must pick themselves up for this must-win game but may have to do without the attacking threat of David Neres and Lacina Traore with the pair both nursing injuries in recent days.

Fortunately they do have other threats, in particular Dusan Tadic. The aforementioned Klaassen, a one-time Everton flop now in his second spell in Amsterdam, also got into plenty of decent positions at Anfield last week.

Pragmatic Italians?

Atalanta - 2.88 for the win and 4.1 to earn the draw they require - have selection issues of their own with Robin Gosens having been sidelined for COVID reasons. Mario Pasalic and Johan Mojica have been training separately following injuries and it's hard to see them starting.

They've won just one of their last six but that was at Anfield where boss Gian Piero Gasperini did show a more pragmatic approach, benching main goal-getter Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel, and starting Josip Ilicic, who was ably supported by the excellent Papu Gomez. The move came three weeks after a 5-0 home hammering by the Reds.

His faith was rewarded with Ilicic among the scorers in a 2-0 victory and it may be a template the much-vaunted manager returns to here.

Still, it's not as if the change of personnel stifled Atalanta as an attacking force - they were still prepared to go at an admittedly-weakened Liverpool side and got their just desserts.

Check out Alex Keble's matchday six tactical preview

They've now won four away games in a row in this competition and have certainly looked a better side outside of Bergamo this season.

Atalanta have won 71% of their Serie A points on the road, scoring 61% of their goals on their travels. That figure rises to 70% in this competition.

Goals look likely

The markets agree though with over 2.5 at just 1.46. That's hardly surprising. Both teams are at 60% for over 2.5 in this competition so far, while in their domestic leagues Ajax are delivering this bet in 82% of their home games, Atalanta in 80% of their away matches. That said, Atalanta's last four matches have all come in under the line.

Over 3.5 can be backed at 2.14 but there appears to be little value left here.

Handicap play worthwhile

I prefer instead to look for some bigger-priced alternatives, starting with Atalanta on the -1 handicap.

Yes, they've not been at their best of late but, as they showed at Anfield, they are a quality outfit when they click and frankly look better than Ajax.

The reverse fixture finished 2-2 but Atalanta dominated for large parts - they basically only woke up after 20 minutes by which time they were two down. They could easily have won. Expect them to be sharper from the gun this time.

If they score first, Ajax have to go for broke and the Italians are more than capable of picking them off on the break and it is that situation which tempts me to back them giving up a one-goal start at 9/2.

Winning by two or more is something they've achieved in both Champions League away games this season. Overall, they've managed it in five of their last 10 in this competition.

Group situation suits Atalanta

Going down a similar road, backing Atalanta to win both halves at 9/1 also looks tasty.

If they do get up early - and they've led in the first half of five of 14 games this season - then everything will be well set up for them to counter Ajax, particularly after the interval when home desperation will grow.

Both teams to score in the first half is the other recommendation - that's an 11/5 shot.

The goal markets clearly expect the net to bulge fairly often and this looks to be where some value lies.

The attacking philosophies, married to the group situation, means this could well be a ding-dong affair from the off. The reverse fixture certainly was end to end so this looks worth a try too.

Opta fact

Atalanta are winless at home in the Champions League group stages this season (D2 L1), yet will qualify for the knockout rounds if they avoid defeat here. It will be just the fourth time a team has picked up as little as two points at home in a group stage and still qualified for the next round in the competition, after Roma in 2002/03 and Milan in both 2009/10 and 2012/13.

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