Ajax has started off its battle for a spot in the UEFA Europa League in good form. The first play-off match against FK Jablonec on Thurdsay in the Amsterdam ArenA resulted in a small but desired win: 1-0. Arek Milik decided the first game from the penalty kick spot.
Ajax had processed the disappointment of their failure to continue in Champions League and was forced to accept this new reality. Coach Frank de Boer had emphasized the importance of taking part in the Europa League pool phase on the eve of this first play-off match against FK Jablonec. European football is a must for Ajax. Not only in terms of the sport, but also financially. The first meeting with the Czech team Jablonec was the chance for redemption and to meet obligations. Another European disappointment needed to be avoided in this double header at all costs.
The Ajax coach decided to leave his squad unchanged after the 3-0 home win against Willem II. The 17 year old Ajax Czech Vaclav Cerny made his official debut against the Tricolour. With a spot in the selection for this first match against Jablonec – Czech for apple tree – Cerny made his European debut as well within a week. The talented player came onto the field in the 85th minute against his fellow countrymen.
Ajax met the opponent they had been expecting. Or, better said: the opponent that Ajax scout Tonnie Bruins Slot had prepared the Ajacieds for. Jablonec’s play didn’t differ much from Rapid Wien’s in terms of strategy. The Czech team also held back en masse in front of their keeper, Vlastimil Hrubý. Centre forward Tomás Wágner was the lone soldier out in front. Jablonec played reactive football; waiting for a mistake by the opponent, and then countering. It was a good thing that Ajax was also watching sharply for mistakes by their Czech opponents. Any space that Jablonec had given away needed to be optimized fully.
Jablonec fired its first warning shot after ten minutes. Ján Gregus’ pivoting shot went over. Klaassen replied by bringing Arek Milik into position. It was a shame that the Polish centre forward received the ball poorly on his head. Gregus proved to be one of the most dangerous Czech players. The midfielder punished a pinball moment in the Amsterdam box – Ajax just couldn’t get the ball out of its own penalty kick area – and almost succeeded. Gregus’ attempt went wide. In the final minutes of the first half, Riechedly Bazoer saw his shot blocked by Vít Benes.
Anwar El Ghazi closed the first half with a beautiful, but ineffective, attempt. The forward was perfectly served a pass by Daley Sinkgraven. El Ghazi sent his shot straight into the hands of keeper Hrubý. The enormous difference in possession in the first half (72% for Ajax, 28% for the visitors) was telling, but didn’t tell the whole story. In terms of true attempts, the Amsterdam and Czech team didn’t actually differ much.
In the half full ArenA, the support from (mostly) VAK410 was a definite plus on Thursday evening. The core supporters, as usual, made themselves heard, clearly and passionately. In the relatively calmer stadium environment, the fighting chants echoed on for even longer.
The Czech team, who had eliminated FC Copenhagen in the third qualifying round, conceded to the home team before the break. Arek Milik’s 1-0 seemed to follow De Boer’s advice from the previous day: “It doesn’t always have to be pretty”. The striker was able to take the ball after Klaassen had been hauled down onto the grass by Benes. Referee Tony Chapron’s only option was to give the home team a penalty kick. Milik knew what to do with this opportunity. There are obviously more beautiful ways in which to score. The centre forward finished off with cool professionalism. The first match needed to end with a positive result. That had also been De Boer’s advice. His demand, in fact.
Ajax could have made things easier for themselves for the return match. El Ghazi (wide), substitute Lasse Schöne (free kick onto the goal’s roof) and Klaassen (header over) didn’t score. On the opposite side, Nermin Crnkic (shot into Cillessen’s hands) and substitute Martin Dolezal also failed to score. In the end, it was enough for the home team to post a narrow, but necessary, victory. The fact that Jablonec didn’t score away may work to Ajax’s advantage for the next match. The deciding game in the Czech Republic can still go either way. Unfortunately, nothing has been decided.