Barcelona starts big week with Champions League match against Ajax before visiting Real Madrid

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MADRID — Barcelona's Luis Enrique faces one of the toughest weeks in his coaching career as his squad hosts Ajax in a Champions League Group F match on Tuesday before travelling to Real Madrid at the weekend for La Liga's first Clasico of the season.

Enrique's approach has been to calm things down and lessen the importance of the Bernabeu clash, describing it as "not decisive." Barcelona has a four-point advantage over its archrival in La Liga.

Of more immediate concern is his team's need to recover from the three Champions League points dropped in a 3-2 defeat at Paris Saint-Germain in their last European outing.

Meanwhile, group leader PSG travels to Cyprus to play APOEL Nicosia.

Here are some things to look out for in Tuesday's matches:


DEFENSIVE STRENGTH

Enrique will be relying on his squad maintaining a disciplined defensive strategy as a secure base from which to launch the scoring talent of Lionel Messi and Neymar.

Goalkeeper Claudio Bravo has yet to concede a goal in the club's eight league matches.

The hosts will also be boosted by a record that has yet to seen them lose at home to Dutch opposition, with just one defeat in their last 28 home Champions League matches.

Enrique knows Ajax coach Frank de Boer well, having been his Barcelona teammate from 1999 to 2003.

Gathering information from the stands will be Barcelona's suspended striker, Luis Suarez, who scored 81 goals for Ajax from 2007 to 2011. However, Barcelona will be without defender Adriano who picked up a right leg muscle injury at the weekend.


NORTH EUROPEAN STRENGTH

Ajax has claimed to 1-1 draws and knows an unlikely win at Barcelona would move it into second place above the Catalan club.

The Amsterdam club's Danish contingent has been vital in their opening two matches of this season's competition.

Against Paris Saint-Germain, Lasse Schone's 74th-minute free kick earned Ajax a score draw, while Lucas Andersen opened the scoring in the team's draw at APOEL Nicosia.

If the Danes don't manage it for Ajax, another northern European could. Iceland striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson is running into form and scored the equalizer Saturday in yet another 1-1 draw for Ajax, this time against Twente, with a toe poke that crept just inside the post.

"It wasn't the most beautiful goal, but it doesn't matter how pretty it is as long as it goes in," Sigthorsson said.

But De Boer will be without two key players. South Africa midfielder Thulani Serero is out after injuring his hamstring Saturday in their draw with FC Twente. Defender Nicolai Boilesen also will be missing as he has not yet recovered from a concussion he suffered in Denmark's 1-0 defeat to Portugal in a 2016 European qualifier. Boilesen had to be stretchered off after being struck hard in the head by teammate Daniel Aggeran's attempted clearance.

They will be replaced by youngsters Jairo Riedewald and Queensy Menig.


MOUNTING INJURY WORRIES

Coach Laurent Blanc must have been scratching his head this weekend looking at PSG's growing injury list, and he has a big decision to make with regards to striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The Sweden star has missed seven straight games — five in the league for PSG and two with Sweden — as he tries to shake of a nagging heel injury.

With Edinson Cavani suspended for PSG's crucial league game against title rival Bordeaux next weekend, Blanc may be better off resting Ibrahimovic against Apoel Nicosia, even if he is fit to play, rather than rushing him back.

But Apoel's strong home form and fervent support could prove problematic for a PSG side considerably weakened in defense.

Thiago Silva has been out for more than two months with a hamstring injury and pulled out of Friday's home game against Lens — hours after Blanc said he was fit. David Luiz (thigh) Marquinhos (thigh), and left back Lucas Digne (knee) also missed that game, while key midfielder Blaise Matuidi picked up a hip injury. Winger Ezequiel Lavezzi (hamstring) is also out.


SOLID AT HOME

APOEL's match against PSG will be its second consecutive Group F tie played at home where the Cypriot team has a strong record. It earned a 1-1 draw against Ajax in its first home match of the group stages and prior to that had secured two qualifying victories over HJK Helsinki and Aalborg BK. It has also picked up 10 points of 12 at home in the domestic championship so far.

"APOEL has proven that it can succeed against any opponent no matter how big a name they are," APOEL's midfielder Tomas De Vincenti said. The 25-year-old Argentinian said APOEL will be going for the win, wanting to "combine a strong performance with a good result." But he said it would be "crazy" for Barcelona and PSG not clinch the top two spots in Group F with the kinds of world-class players at their disposal. He said APOEL's aim is a third-place finish in the Group to earn a spot in the Europa League.


GLORIOUS DECADE

Ten years ago Lionel Messi played his first match for Barcelona. It was a 10-minute appearance as a substitute that saw the 17-year-old hit the back of the net within 17 seconds. Since then he has gone on to win three Champions League trophies with Barcelona and score 68 goals in the competition.

All eyes will be on the Argentina forward to see if he can match — or surpass — Raul Gonzalez's all-time tally of 71 goals before Cristiano Ronaldo gets there. When Barcelona hosted Ajax this time last year, Messi scored a hat-trick.

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