Ajax completed their mission successfully on Wednesday night, something which seemed impossible at certain points of the evening. In the ten eventful minutes after the break, they did what they needed to do to avoid a Greek tragedy. With a 3-3 tie, they forced their spot in the coveted Champions League play-off round.
Martin Jol had Rasmus Lindgren at his disposal in Thessaloniki, which was fortunate. It wasn’t a sure thing until Wednesday afternoon: the Ajax player’s hamstring injury was as good as healed. Roly Bonevacia, included in the selection as a precaution, became the nineteenth man in this important duel.
In this tough match against PAOK, the fit Lindgren acted as controlling midfielder with Demy de Zeeuw. Eyong Enoh was injured. Siem de Jong played upfront, covering centre forward Luis Suarez’ back. Urby Emanuelson and Miralem Sulejmani were on the offense, left and right.
As they had in the Johan Cruijff Plate match (against FC Twente), Ajax had a difficult start. The home team kept an almost identical line-up as they had had in the ArenA, where the Greek team came back to tie the game 1-1. In their own, pleasant – but at times, sullen – Toumba Stadium, PAOK dared to play further upfront. Pavlos Dermitzakis’ team were gutsier and more offensive.
Within the first half hour, PAOK’s hard work on attack created several dangerous situations in front of the Ajax goal. A strange ball by, played back by Gregory van der Wiel, almost became the first PAOK goal. Jan Vertonghen couldn’t stop Dimitris Salpingidis from playing the ball, with Maarten Stekelenburg barely in time to make the save on the line. The last minute save was just postponing the inevitable. Three minutes later, Adelino André Vieirinha sent a fast header straight in on a free kick from the left side. The home team got their desired goal: 1-0. At that moment, Ajax’s mission – making Champions League – seems to become mission impossible.
Things needed to play out differently in the second half. In front of 107 fans who had made the trip, Ajax relentlessly continued. Suarez understood that they needed to change things up. Three minutes into the half, the Uruguayan struck mercilessly, on a high ball from Toby Alderweireld. This time, Ajax made good on the attempt. Two minutes later, Suarez served Siem de Jong on a silver platter. The midfielder ticked the ball in easily at close range: 1-2. Soon after that, Lindgren saw his high free kick go past the blundering Kresic. Ajax had impressively repaired the damage within eight minutes. Before the first ten minutes of the second half were up, Salpingidis scored. The forward easily put the ball in from close by on a pass from Olivier Sorlin (2-3).
Suarez continued to play a starring role in the Greek tragedy. The Uruguayan Ajax player sent an attempt wide, via the post. Immediately after the match in Thessaloniki, Suarez left for Barcelona by private jet to be with his pregnant wife. The Ajax player was most likely pleased, especially after Stekelenburg had proven himself as a penalty killer. After a pushing fault by Vurnon Anita, punished with yellow and a penalty, Vladan Ivic took the shot. ‘Steek’ refuted the shot convincingly. Ivic made the score 3-3 in the end. The tying goal came too late for the Greeks to stand in Ajax’s way. In the previously hostile Toumba Stadium, Ajax left to the home crowd’s applause.
On Friday, Ajax’s opponent in the upcoming play-off round will be known. Both duels will take place on 17/18 and 24/25 of August.