Ajax is back on board

Ajax is back on board

Ajax has posted its first Champions League win of the season against Celtic. In a sold-out Amsterdam ArenA, the Dutch champion defeated the Scottish champion, 1-0. Lasse Schöne scored the winning goal shortly after halftime. Thanks to this win, Ajax is no longer in last place in pool H. Second place even appears to be within reach.

A wave of cheering and sound burst through the ArenA at around half past ten. It was a mix of the fans’ and players’ happiness and relief. The victory against Celtic has improved Ajax’s prospects tremendously. As FC Barcelona defeated AC Milan 3-1, the battle for second place is wide open. Behind Barcelona, who has already qualified, number 2 Milan (5 points) and number 3 Ajax (4 points) are only separated by one point. Their meeting on December 11 in Italy will most likely be very interesting. But Ajax first will face Barcelona at home on November 26. Milan will play at Celtic that same evening.

Frank de Boer: “The last match in Milan will probably be a very interesting one. But first we have the match against Barcelona. We may be able to post a good result against them. That would be a bonus. They’ve already qualified, and you never know what that does with a team. We don’t have anything to lose. But Celtic is definitely still in the picture.”

Ajax’s starting line-up had undergone some big changes. The home team started against Celtic in the same formation as it had ended on Saturday evening’s loss at home to Vitesse. That meant that the squad was amended in no fewer than six positions and that Poulsen, Andersen and Fischer started off on the bench. This meant starting spots for Boilesen, Klaassen and Schöne. Captain De Jong started as centre forward while Blind was positioned as controller at midfield.

With De Jong leading the attack, Frank de Boer hoped to give his front line more power. In the last two duels against RKC and Vitesse, Ajax didn’t manage to score. That same lack of productivity had plagued Ajax two weeks earlier in Glasgow, when they couldn’t convert their dominance into a win. The 2-1 loss meant that Ajax needed to win in order to keep its chances of playing in Europe after the winter holiday alive. Added to the loss to Barcelona and a tie against AC Milan, Ajax needed to bring home three points in the ArenA.

Despite the defeat two weeks ago, the duel at Celtic Park had given Ajax several leads. Celtic may have won, but, in De Boer’s words, the hosting team’s opportunities had been few and far between. ‘We’ll get them in Amsterdam’, he said that evening confidently to the fans who had made the trip and watched from the visitors’ stands. He repeated that statement on Tuesday. Add to that Celtic’s disastrous away record in the Champions League (23 defeats in the previous 25 duels) and all of the ingredients for a successful evening were there.

In the first half, it was De Jong (header) and Denswil (two free kicks) who created the most danger. De Jong’s header in the seventeenth minute especially deserved a better fate. On a pass from Van Rhijn, he ticked the ball with his head onto the ground. Celtic keeper Forster prevented a goal. Shortly before the break, Schöne created some danger in front of the Scottish goal, but he just couldn’t reach Serero’s pass. De Boer: “We played a good first half and kept the pressure on. But we just missed that last push. It was just a matter of waiting until the moment when the goal came.”

That moment came soon after the break. After a beautiful attack over several areas, Schöne scored the liberating 1-0 goal in the 51st minute. De Boer’s team thus was rewarded for its hard work. Until then, Celtic hadn’t been threatening at all, except for one breakout from Kayal. A few minutes after the opening goal, Ajax keeper Cillessen was truly tested for the first time. But the visitors would not pose much more danger. Celtic kept trying, but the lead was never really in jeopardy. The best opportunities were still Ajax’s. De Jong had one more good opportunity, and Denswil came close to scoring the 2-0 goal. The defender sent a header, from a corner kick, against the post a few minutes before the end.