Ajax’s first UEFA Champions League home game resulted in a great evening of football and a 1-1 tie. Mounir El Hamdaoui scored the opening goal; former Ajax player Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored the tying one. Vurnon Anita went out in the first half due to a knee injury.
The Ajax fans were hungry for another Champions League match in the Amsterdam ArenA. Despite a ‘vak 410 ' protest against the price, the supporters came in droves to see a promising Ajax – AC Milan match. Coincidentally, Ajax’s last Champions League match on home soil was also against a Milanese opponent: Internazionale. Danny Blind was coach at the time, and saw his team take an early 2-0 lead, only to end the match with a 2-2 tie. From the current team, only Maarten Stekelenburg and Urby Emanuelson were at that match on February 22, 2006.
And they were both part of the squad that Martin Jol sent onto the field on Tuesday evening. The experienced Ajax players and their team mates were eager to wash away the bitter after taste of their group match against Real Madrid. Ajax had been fully outclassed and grateful that the loss was only 2-0. Compared to that match, Jol made two changes to the selection: the suspended Suarez and Vertonghen were back in the line-up. It was the first Champions League match ever for these two players, not including the qualifying rounds. The Ajax squad has played a total of 30 duels among them at this level, in comparison to 547 duels on the Italian side.
But what do the numbers mean once you’re on the field? In the first twenty minutes, not much. Because Ajax was gutsy, aggressive, and pointedly knocking on keeper Abbiati’s door. AC Milan’s only answer was Robinho’s vicious shot on goal, which Stekelenburg saved. The team from Amsterdam took their well-deserved lead in the 23rd minute. Luis Suarez screened Nesta perfectly in the box, and served Mounir El Hamdaoui on a silver platter. The forward turned and took a high shot in, 1-0. AC Milan hadn’t given Ajax much to sweat about until then. But experience came into play later in the first half, when Ajax was left with ten men due to Vurnon Anita’s leg injury. In that short time, the Milanese team struck. Zlatan Ibrahimovic shot in Seedorf’s pass, 1-1. 37 minutes had elapsed. But Ajax, with Miralem Sulejmani coming in for the injured Anita, weren’t intimidated and fanatically went after every possible opening. “From the first minute, it went as we had hoped”, said Jol afterwards. “We’d been bitten in Madrid, and thought perhaps that this kind of team were simply out of our league. It was just a shame that the goal came right in the period when Anita went out.”
In the second half, the home team, playing in front of their own supporters, strived to pick up where they had left off. But Milan wasn’t going to sit back and wait anymore. Massimiliano Allegri’s team recognized the many attributes of Suarez and El Hamdaoui especially, as these two were threatening several times in the penalty kick area. “Ajax gave us a hard time”, admitted Allegri afterwards. Midway through the second half, the game lulled somewhat, but picked up again in the 76th minute, as Ajax pressed on. AC Milan had a fantastic opportunity to score the winning goal six minutes before the end, as Van der Wiel lay injured on the ground. Ibrahimovic passed to Robihno, who took a hard shot on goal. It was only Stekelenburg’s supreme class that prevented the ball from going in. Soon after, Allegri substituted Seedorf, who received loud cheering from the Ajax fans, for Abete, and Inzaghi came in for Robinho.
The crowd was on their feet to cheer Ajax on in the closing minutes. But three points just weren’t in the cards for them. The score remained 1-1, earning them third place in the pool, as Auxerre suffered a loss at home to Real Madrid. “We should be happy with one point”, said Jol. “But we actually should have had three to get higher up.”