Ajax won its third Champions League group match against Dinamo Zagreb, 2-0. In a nail-biting match, in which both teams went all out in order to win, Ajax showed some great football. Derk Boerrigter and Christian Eriksen were the ones who scored in the Maksimir Stadium.
Ajax’s last visit to Dinamo Zagreb was during the 2009-2010 season. Back then, Ajax played in an unusual setting. The Europa League match was played in an empty Maksimir Stadium. Only the voices of the 22 players on the field could be heard in the eerie atmosphere of the stadium. Following supporter riots against FC Timisoara, the UEFA had handed down a sanction of two matches to be played without supporters.
The teams meet again two seasons later. This time, it’s in the prestigious Champions League football tournament. One week before the match, Dinamo Zagreb’s official website posted a poll, asking visitors to vote for the favourite. Would Dinamo beat Ajax, or would the Amsterdam powerhouse defeat the home team? Around sixty per cent of voters put their faith in Dinamo. Almost thirty per cent thought Ajax would be too strong, and assumed that the team would bring the victory back home to Amsterdam.
And that is exactly what happened on Tuesday evening in the Maksimir Stadium, in the heart of Zagreb. The Amsterdam team’s formation seemed strong from the start, and they played confidently. But Dinamo came out strong from the starting blocks too. Dinamo’s first serious threat came after five minutes of play, after Fatos Beqiraj opened fire on the Ajax goal. The forward came from the left side, and surprised Kenneth Vermeer with his hard shot. Ajax’s goalie, with feline reflexes, made the save. Soon after, Beqiraj went to Vermeer again, this time on his own. His one-on-one play didn’t work, and Vermeer was able to gain control of the ball easily. Frank de Boer’s team didn’t wait much longer before giving its own answer. Toby Alderweireld sprinted to the front, and made a beautiful attempt on Dinamo’s keeper. Ivan Keleva made the save.
After ten minutes, Ajax got an amazing chance. Jan Vertonghen made good use of a free kick. His hard shot was barely deflected by Keleva. On the rebound, Siem de Jong – who was free – sent his header wide of the goal. De Jong got a second chance to bring Ajax into the lead. The centre forward’s header, on a pass from Theo Janssen, went wide of the goal once again.
The fact that both Ajax and Dinamo were fully going for the win was clear from both team’s attacks and opportunities. The much coveted second place in group D is what both the Croatian team and Ajax hope to gain. With quick transitions, strong attacks and targeted shots on goal, the nail-biting game was pure eye-candy. Dinamo was threatening, thanks to a hard attempt from Ante Rukavina and a shot from Sammir which ended in Vermeer’s hands. But Ajax also continued to gain control of the ball, to come up, and create opportunities. Among others, Sulejmani had a great chance to score via a long distance shot. Soon afterwards, Gregory van der Wiel – back in the starting eleven after a sitting out a suspension for the AZ game – started a fine attack. The right back made a good pass to Christian Eriksen, who served Boerrigter on a silver platter. After this great set-up, the left winger’s shot when high over the goal.
Ajax started strong in the second half. With less than three minutes played in the second half, Miralem Sulejmani made a stunning slalom from his own half, and made a great pass to Boerrigter, who scored, 1-0. The forward scored Ajax’s first European goal of the 2011-2012 season. After the goal, Kunoslav Jurcic’s team kept hunting for a chance, but it didn’t come.
Ajax got another great opportunity with fifteen minutes left on the clock. Janssen went towards Kelava in a quick tempo, and took a hard shot. The one-on-one play unfortunately didn’t yield a second goal for Ajax, since the Dinamo keeper managed to punch the ball away at the last moment. Five minutes before time, Alderweireld was set up to tick the ball into the goal after a corner kick from specialist Janssen. He was just a fraction of a second too late.
A last attempt from Dinamo was welcomed by the crowd. To loud cheering, Luis Ibañez took a free kick from just outside the box. The Ajax players reacted swiftly, gained control of the ball, and transitioned quickly. The only hope for Dinamo was wiped away in the ninetieth minute when Eriksen scored, 2-0, with a flawless and seemingly simple shot.
Coach Frank de Boer praised the midfield after the match. “Janssen was always free. He was able to make good passes continuously, resulting in good opportunities. Theo and Enoh played well into the spaces which were given.” De Boer is clear about the opportunities created. “We definitely had chances that we didn’t capitalize on. At this level, that can cost you a lot. Slowly, we got more grip, but you actually shouldn’t let moments like that get away.”