For the third year in a row, the Champions League took Ajax to Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. And for the third time in a row, the game ended in defeat for Ajax. Still, there was something bittersweet about the 4-1 loss, since Ajax managed to cling to third place. Ajax therefore will continue in the Europa League after the winter break, and they will be the only Dutch club to do so.
Thanks to a helping hand from Borussia Dortmund, Ajax laid definite claim to third place in group D. The German group winner ended its impressive series of games with a 1-0 win against Manchester United. Ajax thus remained one point ahead of the English team in the rankings. And that’s exactly what secured a spot in the UEFA Europa League for Ajax.
Ajax played against Real Madrid, who had already qualified, with the same line-up as for the wins against PSV and Roda JC. Frank de Boer didn’t see any reason to change anything to the basis eleven who had already done such a good job in previous matches. And thus Danny Hoesen and Viktor Fischer were also in the basis at Bernabéu.
Although Ajax was holding all of the cards for coming back to European football after the winter break, it became quickly clear that help from the Germans would be more than welcome. Within half an hour, Ajax was dependent on the results from Dortmund. With a 2-0 score on the boards at halftime, Ajax could only hope to contain the damage. Real Madrid’s lead was the result of a small football show that the home team delivered in the first 28 minutes. Without seasoned basis players like Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso, Real Madrid was still too strong for Ajax. The replacements (mixed in with world class stars and talents) did their job well. Goals from Christiano Ronaldo and José Callejón in the thirteenth and 28th minute were more than worth it, even considering the stakes.
Luka Modric was the architect of both attacks. The Croat first trumped Siem de Jong at midfield, after which the ball ended up with Ronaldo, via Karim Benzema. After his hat trick in the ArenA, the Portuguese player once again hurt Ajax by scoring a goal. It was just a matter of time before the first goal was to come, as Karim Benzema (offside) and Fábio Coentrão (post) had already come knocking.
The 2-0 was also worth the show. With a well thought out pass, Callejón was sent in deep by Modric. Callejón thus shook his opponent Moisander off, and shot the ball past Kenneth Vermeer, who had already distinguished himself a few times with good saves. But Vermeer’s good moments were quickly forgotten afterwards when it appeared that Real would not be content with two goals. Four minutes after the break, Kaká brought the Spaniards to their feet with a beautiful long distance shot: 3-0.
Fortunately for the 800 fans that had made the trip, there was reason to cheer in the second half when Derk Boerrigter brought the score to 3-1 after an hour of play. The winger received the ball at his feet outside the box after Hoesen had received an unintentional break from keeper Adán. Daley Blind’s pass landed with Boerrigter, who shot the ball into the empty goal. At that moment, Borussia Dortmund had just taken the lead against Manchester City, making Ajax’s third place finish a bit more secure.
Despite Real Madrid’s fourth goal (Callejón again), the scenario changed once again in the last fifteen minutes, ensuring Ajax a longer stay in Europe. And, in a group with the champions from Germany, Spain and England, that was no small feat. In two weeks, Ajax will go into the draw for the knock-out phase of the Europa League. In that tournament after the winter break, Ajax, and 31 other teams, will strive for a spot in the finals on May 15th in the Amsterdam ArenA.