The evening that could have ended so beautifully ended in disappointment instead. A 1-1 draw against Molde FK was insufficient to remain in the UEFA Europa League after the winter break. Donny van de Beek scored the only goal for the Amsterdam team on Thursday evening.
Ajax knew what would be required in the almost sold-out ArenA. A sensational bid to catch up on this last day of play for Group A would only be possible with a win over Molde FK. That in itself would not be sufficient. A win would only have value if Fenerbahçe would lose. The Turkish team would need to lose on their home turf to Celtic FC. Frank de Boer put a number to Ajax’s chances of remaining in the Europa League after the winter break. The coach estimated that the club had only a five per cent chance to pull off a Houdini-like escape to disqualification in the Europa League. This dream scenario, however, remained just that: a dream.
Ricardo van Rhijn had the opportunity to start against the Norwegian Molde FK, who had assured themselves of winning the group early on in the tournament. The right back stood in for Kenny Tete, who was suspended. Donny van Beek also was at kick-off. Jairo Riedewald returned to the heart of Ajax’s defense after being suspended from national play (against Heerenveen). Anwar El Ghazi and Riechedly Bazoer watched the pool match against Molde from the bench for a long time.
Van Rhijn’s return turned out to be a bit of a double edged sword. The defender played a role both in Van de Beek’s opening goal as well as Harmeet Singh’s tying one. The shot of the latter, a former Feyenoord player, disappeared behind Jasper Cillessen thanks to an unwitting Van Rhijn.
Van Rhijn had more reason to smile after his assist to Van de Beek. The Ajax youngster scored with a header in the 14th minute. Van de Beek struck from twelve yards out and with considerable danger to himself. He not only made contact with the ball, but also with his opponent Joona Toivo. The Ajax midfielder came out of this collision with a bloody head wound after his beautiful play. The header, which went into the upper corner from twelve yards out, was reminiscent of ones by former Ajacieds and header specialists John Bosman and Ruud Geels. The Molde captain was forced to retire early from the match. After a short pit-stop with club physician Don de Winter (to take care of the wound) and team manager Tjerk Smeets (for a clean jersey, without blood stains), Van de Beek was able to resume the match.
After the 1-0 lead, Ajax was in a position to dream about continuing in Europe after the break. Fifteen minutes later, that dream evaporated. Five minutes after Ajax’s opening goal, Nemanja Gudelj sent a hard shot against the crossbar. The Amsterdam team came away unscathed after missed attempts by Ola Kamara and Mohamed Elyounoussi. Cillessen saved both goals with verve. The fact that Fenerbahçe had taken the lead in Istanbul shortly before the break didn’t bode well.
The Amsterdam team’s fighting spirit didn’t wane for one minute. Although it took some time before significant opportunities came in the second half. Fischer sent his attempt, after a beautiful dribble from the side line, high over the goal. With substitutes El Ghazi (for Amin Younes) and Bazoer (for Van de Beek), Ajax gained momentum. Three minutes after coming on, El Ghazi sent a hard shot onto the crossbar. The developments in Istanbul brought excitement to the ArenA. Fener was forced to continue with ten players after a red card. The Scottish tying goal (1-1) came shortly after.
The hopes of 48.401 spectators (minus the 800 Norwegians in the visitors’ stands) were hanging on a second Ajax goal. And the accompanying 1-2 from Celtic. Everything to make that dream scenario come true. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. No more goals were scored in Amsterdam, or Istanbul. For the first time since 2007-2008, Ajax’s European season is over before the winter break.