Stefano Denswil seemed to bring Ajax to a well-deserved win over AC Milan thanks to his header in the ninetieth minute in the second round of play of the UEFA Champions League. But looks were deceiving since a successful penalty shot by one-man show Mario Balotelli ended up costing Ajax two precious points in extra time: 1-1.
“It’s disappointing to have only come away with one point, but in the end, I can live with a tie”, concluded Frank de Boer. Ajax knew what they needed to do after they lost their first game in group H. Two weeks after a 4-0 defeat at FC Barcelona, results (and points) needed to be achieved against the Milan team. Three days after the brilliant win at home against Go Ahead Eagles (6-0), Frank de Boer made two changes to his squad. Centre forward Kolbeinn Sitghórsson replaced the injured Bojan Krkic. Daley Blind took over the left back position that Nicolai Boilesen had fulfilled on Saturday.
De Boer’s colleague Massimiliano Allegri also had some challenges to contend with. The head coach was forced to make up his squad without injured stars Kaká and Stephan El Shaarawy. With eye catchers such as Mario Balotelli, Robinho, Riccardo Montolivo and former Ajax player Nigel de Jong, Allegri still had plenty of talent at his disposal for kick-off. Urby Emanuelson started this fourteenth official European meeting between Ajax and AC Milan on the Italian bench. The former Ajax player needed to be content with a substitution late in the game.
Ajax did itself a disservice by failing to score in the first half. In the first 45 minutes especially, there was clearly one team who was on the ball: the home team. The Amsterdam team’s dominance was illustrated by the radical difference in ball possession. After one quarter of the match, the division was crystal clear: 76% for Ajax, 24% for Milan. Not surprisingly, most of the game was being played on the Italian side of the field. In the opening minutes, Sigthórsson already had the home crowd cheering. The Icelander’s attempt bounced off Christian Abbiati’s body. A flying shot by Viktor Fischer almost brought the sold-out ArenA to its feet. But the bullet was just on the wrong side of the post.
The Italians didn’t have their first, and only, real opportunity of the first half until the 31t minute. That was also illustrative to the relationship. On a pass from left back Kévin Constant, go-to man Balotelli was neutralized by Jasper Cillessen. The Ajax goalie made a great debut in the Champions League on Tuesday. Because Lerin Duarte (free kick; stopped by Abbiati) and Moisander (long distance shot over) were also unable to make good in the first half, the 0-0 score at halftime was an uneasy one. One unexpected breakaway by Balotelli, for example, would have completely changed Ajax’s position.
With its gutsiness and offensive play, Ajax showed the face that De Boer wants to see. The Ajax coach had made his predicting calculations at the draw. “We need to beat Milan at home, and defeat Celtic twice.” If that scenario plays out, then Ajax would be assured of remaining in European play after the winter break. They were sitting tight with those fighting words on Tuesday, in the lively, sold out ArenA. The big question after the break was whether or not the Amsterdam team could muster the strength and conviction to continue playing so compellingly.
Milan was actually the opponent against which Frank de Boer made his official debut as Ajax’s coach in December 2010. The fact that times can change quickly begs a comparison between De Boer’s Ajax from back then, and the eighteen Ajax players that were in the game selection on Tuesday. Only captain Siem de Jong was left from that team that posted that upset and left San Siro with a 2-0 win. Just like in the Milanese football temple, Ajax was once again playing attacking football less than three years later in the ArenA. The only problem seemed to be converting that strong play into goals. This would prove to be costly for the Amsterdam team in the last minute.
The Italians, of course, remained on the lookout for their opportunities. In front of 51.692 spectators, Cillessen made a great save on an attempt by captain Montolivo. In the same period, a header by Sigthórsson ended up in Abbiati’s hands. Cillessen’s save shortly after was probably his best of the evening. The Ajax player got his fingertips onto Balotelli’s shot before it extended towards the crossbar. Centre forward Balotelli proved again that he’s a dangerous factor to be reckoned with. The Italian was somewhat of an exception within his, mostly defending, team.
“In the first half, we didn’t give away any opportunities. But in today’s football, if you get three or four opportunities, you need to make good on at least one. Unfortunately we didn’t come out of the starting blocks as well in the second half”, said De Boer. The Ajax coach saw his team take a step backwards in terms of quality when Niklas Moisander, and then Lerin Duarte, were substituted after complaints. Ajax’s play in the last half hour was messier. Fatigue most likely played a role in this. Christian Poulsen himself was no longer very fresh for the last half hour. “We weren’t making the right decisions anymore. We got a bit more restless. Milan got a better foothold in the match at that point.”
It wasn’t until the ninetieth minute that Ajax was rewarded (possession split was then 60%/40%). Soon after a sharp shot from De Jong, the outstanding Stefano Denswil scored on a header: 1-0. The central defender, who played a flawless match, seemed to help his team win. Push and pull work between substitute Mike van der Hoorn and Balotelli cost Ajax two points in extra time. Referee Jonas Eriksson awarded the visitors an opportunity to tie the game. To a loud concert of jeers, enfant terrible Balotelli took full advantage of his shot from the penalty spot: 1-1.
“It’s ridiculous that we got a penalty against”, evaluated De Boer. “The goal line referee should have given Ajax a free kick. He didn’t dare. So we got screwed.”
Thus the overriding feeling after the second group stage UEFA Champions League game was one of disappointment for Ajax. The duel between Celtic FC and FC Barcelona resulted in a 0-1 win for the Catalan team. Looking at the current situation in the Champions League’s group H, anything is still possible.
Keep watching Ajax TV for highlights of Ajax – AC Milan, and reactions afterwards from Frank de Boer, Siem de Jong, Stefano Denswil and former Ajax player Urby Emanuelson.