On Thursday evening, Ajax ended its successful UEFA Europa League pool phase with a draw at Standard Liège. The Ajacieds seemed poised to win for a long time after a goal by El Ghazi, but the home team came back to tie up the game with just five minutes left on the clock.
With an undefeated record and fourteen points, Ajax can look back on a very successful run in group G. Peter Bosz’s team, which was already assured of winning the group prior to the game, will find out who its next opponent will be on Monday, in the final 32. The draw will take place in Lyon. One of the four lowest disqualified Champions League teams, or the number two from the Europa League, are potential opponents.
As had been announced in the press conference prior to the game, Peter Bosz had made several changes to the line-up. Compared to the win at home against FC Groningen (2-0), only Amin Younes and Donny van de Beek made another appearance for this game. Davy Klaassen, suspended against Groningen, returned to the squad. In addition to that, Diederik Boer was in the Amsterdam team’s goal, increasing the average age of the very young squad.
A dramatically altered line-up does not necessarily lead to a weaker team, as has been proven in the cup match against Willem II (5-0) and the previous Europa League match against Panathinaikos. In that game, several substitute players and young talents showed what they can do with verve. And this was once again the case in Liège.
From the Amsterdam point of view, the match started on a sour note. Ajax’s supporters threw fireworks onto the field, after which the game had to be paused for a short period of time.
Standard was in second place prior to the match, with a slightly better goal balance than Celta de Vigo, and they started the game with enthusiasm. The first scoring opportunity was for the Belgians, via Jean-Luc Dompé. His shot from the outside left went wide. After about fifteen minutes, Ajax found its rhythm and slowly took control.
After 23 minutes of play, Klaassen seemed to open the score, but his header – before it even had passed the goal line – was disqualified by the referee. A few minutes later, the Ajacieds took the lead, Donny van de Beek found El Ghazi on the right side with a brilliant cross-ball. The forward was launched, free from his guard, and defeated Guillaume Hubert with a hard shot.
The goal was a personal achievement for El Ghazi. The forward had been relegated to the Ajax Reserves for one month as a disciplinary measure. He has been back in the A selection for one week. Against Groningen, he forced a penalty kick, which Hakim Ziyech converted into the match winner.
In the final fifteen minutes of the first half, Standard started to push. However, the most dangerous play came from Ajax. But, from a fantastic position, Cassierra was unable to make good. Standard’s reply was a dangerous shot by Dompé.
In the second half, Standard needed to perform, and they did just that. But Ajax still had the best opportunities. Shortly after the break, El Ghazi broke out with a long solo, but stumbled onto goalie Hubert in the near corner. After that, a nice long-distance shot by Nouri (just wide of the crossbar) and an opportunity for Cassierra (after a beautiful cross-pass by Younes) deserved a better fate.
This is not to say that the energetic Standard had no opportunities in this phase. On the contrary. In the 64th minute, Benito Raman missed the mark from the edge of the box. Knowing that Celta was leading at Panathinaikos and that a win was thus necessary, the host’s confidence slowly ebbed away. Fifteen minutes before time, Nouri was in a position to deal out the final blow, but after a beautiful pass from Van de Beek, and equally beautiful turn, the diminutive play-maker shot over the goal.
That missed opportunity, and Cassierra’s a bit later, had serious consequences. Five minutes before time, Standard tied the game out of the blue: 1-1. Substitute Raman sent an amazing header into the goal. Suddenly, the home team smelled blood and went on the hunt. Taking risks was part of this. On the attack, El Ghazi once again was in a position to take the lead, but, completely free in front of the Standard goal, he sent his shot over.
In the dying seconds, Standard even came close to taking the win, but a a clean pass by Isaac Mbenza was missed by his sliding team mate next to the second post.