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    Thursday, November 9, 2023

    Ajax Seeks Europa League Surge as New Coach Sparks Turnaround, Israeli Clubs Return to European Play

    A coaching change appears to have done the trick for Ajax as the slumping Dutch giant seeks a late turnaround in its Europa League group.

    John van ’t Schip, a former midfielder for Ajax and the Netherlands, was brought in last week to rescue the four-time European champions after their worst start to a season since the advent of professional soccer in the country in 1954.

    He has started with two straight victories in the Eredivisie — that’s as many wins as Ajax collected in its opening 13 games of the season in all competitions — and next comes a match against Brighton in the Europa League on Thursday.

    Ajax’s slow start to the Dutch league means there’s no guarantee it will qualify for European competition via that route this season. The club that reached the Champions League semifinals in 2019 is already 15 points off third place, which earns an entry to the qualifying rounds of the marquee competition for next season, when it will debut a revamped format.

    This Europa League, then, might be a possible salvation because the title winner gets a place in the next Champions League. However, Ajax is currently in last place in its group after two draws and a loss at Brighton two weeks ago.

    Van ’t Schip is re-energizing Ajax against the backdrop of a tragedy in his personal life. His wife died of cancer last month but he still took the job at his former club, something which is inspiring the team according to Ajax forward Steven Bergwijn.

    “You want to go the extra mile,” Bergwijn said after last week’s 2-0 win over Volendam that ended Ajax’s winless streak lasting more than two months.

    There has since been a 4-1 victory over Heerenveen, so the mood in the squad contrasts sharply to a few weeks, when Ajax was losing five times in a 10-match winless spell — its longest-ever run without a victory — and languishing in last place in the 18-team Eredivisie.

    Ajax is three points behind Group B leader Marseille, which visits AEK Athens.

    Liverpool, Roma and Bayer Leverkusen are the only teams on maximum points heading into the fourth round of group games.

    Two Israeli clubs return to action in UEFA competitions Thursday after being unable to play their fixtures two weeks ago because of the country’s war with Hamas.

    Maccabi Haifa’s home game against Villarreal in the Europa League will be played in neutral Cyprus, at Larnaca. The teams could not play in Spain on Oct. 26 and that game has been rescheduled for Dec. 6 in an otherwise blank week for men’s international games.

    Maccabi Tel Aviv is away to Zorya Luhansk of Ukraine in a Europa Conference League game staged in Poland between two teams displaced by war. Ukrainian teams have played international games in neutral countries since the Russian military invasion started in February last year.

    Maccabi Tel Aviv’s home game against Zorya is now set for Nov. 25 at a neutral venue yet to be decided.

    In the third-tier Conference League, only Fenerbahce, PAOK and Viktoria Plzeň of the eight group leaders have nine points after three games. AP

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