Fresh and surprising football was at the base of Ajax’s glossy 3-1 win over Manchester City. The Ajax players fought back convincingly after a 0-1 midway score in the Champions League pool D match. After a well-deserved win over England’s champions, Ajax’s outlook is suddenly much brighter.
The first official meeting between Ajax and Manchester City was a true ‘do or die’ one for both teams. After a disappointing start, both Ajax (0 points in pool D) and Manchester City (1 point) needed to win in order to keep the opportunity to continue Champions League play after the winter break alive. “We need to rise above ourselves in a fantastic atmosphere”, said Frank de Boer shortly before the third pool match’s kick off.
The disappointing tie at Heracles Almelo (3-3) on Saturday wasn’t a very good dress rehearsal for this crucial match in the ArenA. The thinking beforehand was that Ajax needed to have a very good day in order to beat the Premier League’s champion. But they lacked the necessary decisiveness last Saturday on Almelo’s artificial turf. Maturity seemed to be a prerequisite to remain in the running at the top European club level. All of the ingredients for a cracking football match were there from the start.
De Boer surprised everyone by starting Christian Eriksen in the centre forward position. The young Dane thus took over the spot that Siem de Jong had filled in last Saturday’s game against Heracles. This tactical change paid off early when Eriksen had the first real opportunity of the night. After nine minutes, Eriksen received a pass from Lasse Schöne (on a Daley Blind pass), after which his shot went just wide of John Hart’s goal. Roughly ten minutes later, Eriksen created room for himself to take a shot. After a beautiful move, in which he pivoted past opponent Gareth Barry, he took a shot which ended just wide of the English keeper’s goal.
The Ajax player and his team mates reaped applause for these opportunities and the beautiful attacks which had come before. Unfortunately, soon after, things went south for the home team, despite their strong playing. Not even a minute after the best Ajax opportunity, Samir Nasri was on the scoring end of a razor sharp counter. The first chance for the English team – in fact, the first moment in which City actually appeared to be making an effort – was fully cashed in by The Sky Blues. Just like before in the home match against Real Madrid, Ajax came face to face with the harsh reality of playing a top European team. One shot, one goal. The fact that the 0-1 deficit was at odds with the relative playing strength of each team on the field didn’t seem to bother the English champion at all.
The fact that Ajax didn’t go behind by a second goal in the first half can be attributed to one man: Kenneth Vermeer. After a new attack by City, right back Micah Richards appeared in front of the Ajax goal. Vermeer threw himself expertly onto the ball and kept his team – as he has done several times this season – in the race.
Ajax kept its cool and wasn’t intimidated by Manchester City’s impressive line-up of football stars. Although the pace was slow at times, Ajax continued to play its own game, and kept hunting for the quickest route to Hart. This patient and self-confident tactic resulted in a tying goal for the home team right before the break. On a Ricardo van Rhijn pass, De Jong sent a clear shot into the goal: 1-1. This gave the Amsterdam team a new and improved perspective going into the second half. The tying goal also reflected the reality on the field much better.
“The 0-1 goal came out of the blue, and it was a blow”, said Frank de Boer. “We picked ourselves up and, after scoring the tying goal, we continued to play well; with confidence in our own game. We showed guts, and that’s what I want to see from Ajax – against Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, too.”
After a small hour of top football, the Amsterdam ArenA heaving in ecstasy when Niklas Moisander scored. The Finnish central defender sent a clear, hard header straight in on an Eriksen corner: 2-1. It was beautiful to watch how Moisander kept English international Joleon Lescott far under him (literally) in the midair battle. Or did Lescott simply undermine the situation, in the way that City as a whole seemed to do by not going all out in the ArenA? This time, Ajax didn’t fail to capitalize on the guests’ approach.
The ecstasy turned into frank delirium eleven minutes later when Eriksen, the undisputed star of the evening, scored the 3-1 goal. First, the centre forward disengaged himself from City captain Vincent Kompany, after which Eriksen kept a cool head and set himself up for a shot which – thanks to a helping hand from lady luck – sailed past Hart via Richards’ leg.
Vermeer continued to shine after coming face to face with Edin Dzeko. Fortunately for all Ajax fans in the lively ArenA, Vermeer was unbeatable after Nasri’s goal. On the other side, Hart was put to work by a Tobias Sana shot. This part of the game – the last twenty minutes – was illustrative of the dynamic game that had blossomed from the first whistle until the last.
When Norwegian referee Svein Oddvan Moen blew his final whistle at around ten thirty, the ArenA broke out into euphoric cheers. To deafening applause, De Boer’s Ajax team took a well –deserved lap of honour. Ajax blew new life into its chances in group D with this victory over Manchester City. Midway through the pool phase of the prestigious tournament (and after Borussia Dortmund’s 2-1 win against Real Madrid), everything is still possible for Ajax. They truly rose to the occasion.
“For me, the most important thing is that I saw gutsy Ajax”, said Frank de Boer in his press conference. “And in that case, the chance that you’ll end up on the right side of the scoreboard afterwards is bigger. I’m proud of what we showed today. We filled up on confidence. We need to hold on to that for the Dutch competition and, in two weeks, Manchester City. We deserved this win.”