Ajax failed to earn a spot in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday’s deciding play-off match. Rapid Wien was too strong in the Amsterdam ArenA: 2-3. One week after the 2-2 draw in Vienna, this was a disastrous result. What is left now are two qualification matches for the UEFA Europa League.
Ajax’s first official home game of 2015-2016 was a high-stakes one. The result from the first match (2-2) was the cause of the tension in the sold-out Amsterdam ArenA. On Wednesday, Ajax had many opportunities to secure its spot in the UEFA Champions League by putting the game away early on. A 2-0 early lead was sloppily given away. With a 2-2 final score, it was record holder Rapid Wien who had the mental advantage coming into this game.
Zoran Barisic’s team certainly was not lacking in confidence. Rapid won its second competition match last weekend, defeating FC Salzburg 1-2. Two seasons ago, it was FC Salzburg itself who had been too strong for Ajax, eliminating them from the UEFA Europa League.
The return match in the ArenA could have gone in any direction on Tuesday. The desire for Ajax to make it to the deciding play-offs made for a great atmosphere in the stadium. Ajax’s plan was to score as quickly as possible. In order to quench the anxiety, the return should preferably be decided early on.
Frank de Boer let Viktor Fischer start against Rapid Wien. The day before, Ajax’s coach had said that the Dane would be able to play for an hour at most. Left winger Fischer took over Daley Sinkgraven’s spot from last week, although the lively Sinkgraven had played mostly as a left forward in Vienna. Nemanja Gudelj – who started in the Ernst Happel Stadion – was relegated to the bench. The other ten Ajacieds were the same ones who had appeared a week ago at kick-off.
An early goal was scored in the noisy ArenA, however not by the desired team. Robert Beric’s 0-1 goal in the twelfth minute was preceded by a mess in the Ajax defense. The defending Sinkgraven lost possession too easily, after which the ball landed, via Steffen Hofmann and Stefan Stangl, onto the head of the club’s top scorer. Beric was able to score, unhindered: 0-1. The subsequent angry outburst from Cillessen spoke volumes.
To nobody’s surprise, the Austrian team then erected a green wall. The attacking home team was sometimes faced with ten, or even eleven Rapid players in front of the ball. This minimal room to move and to play obviously made it difficult to find an opening. Ajax didn’t create many opportunities itself. The name of the game was mostly to be alert for counters, namely from Beric. The Slovenian had shown his class last season by scoring 27 goals.
Midway through the first half, Fischer saw his attempt go just long of Jan Novota’s goal. Ajax didn’t come much closer to scoring. The home team worked hard and was resilient, but to no avail. In fact, it was Rapid who scored again before halftime. Louis Schaub went in dribbling, after which his long distance shot – unfortunately touched by Joël Veltman on the way – landed in the far corner of the goal. This 0-2 goal was like a sledgehammer. A spot in the play-offs for the Champions League seemed out of reach.
Yet hope flickered in Amsterdam hearts again. Ajax managed to do in the second half what they hadn’t done in the first: score early on. With a fantastic shot, striker Arek Milik brought Ajax one step closer to Rapid Wien: 1-2. In addition to the beautiful volley, honourable mention must also go to the perfect assist from left back Mitchell Dijks.
Nemanja Gudelj came in for Fischer in the last half hour. Twelve minutes after the Serbian’s home debut, Yaya Sanogo was also brought in. With twenty minutes to go, it was no holds barred. What Rapid had done to Ajax in the first game (from 0-2 to 2-2) needed to be equaled, or better yet, surpassed.
The 2-2 from substitute Gudelj brought ecstasy to the ArenA. Suddenly, the hope of an upset was alive. Fifteen minutes before time, a sensational feat seemed possible. But this didn’t take Rapid’s venomous scoring abilities. Only two minutes after the tying goal, Schaub struck again. The euphoria in the ArenA was extinguished.
Thus, the ticket for the Champions League play-off round was earned by the Austrian team. Ajax only left with a bad hangover. But the Amsterdam team will need to re-group quickly and focus on the remaining qualification match for the UEFA Europa League. The 2015-2016 season is only two games old, but is already filled with disappointment for De Boer’s team.