Ajax has been eliminated from European football for this season. In Austria, FC Salzburg was too powerful for Ajax, just as they had been in the Amsterdam ArenA: 3-1. After this round of thirty-two elimination from the UEFA Europa League, Ajax can now focus exclusively on competition and cup football, starting with the Classic coming up this weekend.
For the return in Salzburg, Frank de Boer had drastically amended his starting line-up compared to Ajax’s last game against AZ (4-0). The attacking trio was composed of right winger Lesly de Sa, centre forward Kolbeinn Sigthórsson and Lerin Duarte. The multifunctional Rotterdam native had been on left back and left midfield for the home games against Salzburg and AZ. Christian Poulsen was the biggest surprise in the starting line-up at midfield, while Mike van der Hoorn and Stefano Denswil were the duo in the defensive heart.
The Ajax coach had recently emphasized that performances are dependent on the entire team. It’s not simply the eleven players on the field who are responsible for achieving success or failure. De Boer underlined his words with the chosen method of battle in the sold-out Red Bull Arena (the stadium which is unofficially called Salzburg Stadium in European duels). The newcomers on the starting line-up were given the chance to show what they can do by their coach. From the line-up, it was clear that the upcoming competition match against Feyenoord was already having its effect on the Europa League match. On Sunday, Ajax will play a –already - highly charged Classic in Rotterdam.
In Mozart’s city of birth, Ajax was intent on making up for its hopeless 0-3 loss suffered in the ArenA. De Boer, his staff and players, were supported by almost 2.150 fans who had made the trip, which was a true boost. The heart-warming support was great for morale, in as much as that was needed. A few days before the return, Poulsen had declared: “We need to fact Salzburg with our heads held high.” And there was a lot at stake for the Ajax players, who needed to redeem their home loss. If that wouldn’t happen with a victory, it should at least happen with good football.
Just like in the ArenA, Ajax had difficulties with the very mobile and pressure-applying Red Bulls. The first Ajax opportunity, a header from Sigthórsson in the 22nd minute, was preceded by three massive chances for the Austrians. The guests considered themselves lucky to have escaped an early deficit in the sixth minute. Denswil sent the ball in simply, after which Alan shot this gift straight into Jasper Cillessen’s hands. Five minutes later, Denswil made amends for his mistake by making a good save on Kevin Kampl’s attempt. The attacking midfielder sharply outplayed the midfield, followed by a lob over Cillessen. The ball bounced onto the crossbar, after which Denswil was able to play it out. Shortly before that, centre forward Alan had sent the ball reckless hard, but wide.
In continuation, the Salzburg team created one opportunity after another. Captain Jonatan Soriano – who had scored a sublime goal in the ArenA – hit the post on one of his attempts. Andreas Ulmer’s shot wasn’t clear enough; it seared past the goal, wide. Ajax was unable to offer up much in return. Lesly de Sa was the most threatening Ajax player before the break. The right winger’s biggest opportunity was turned away by keeper Péter Gulácsi.
The much delayed, but definitive knock-out came in the 56th minute. Unfortunately, it was Van der Hoorn who unwillingly enabled this blow. The central defender touched Soriano’s hard shot wrongly, firing it instead, via Cillessen, into his own goal: 1-0. Ajax’s UEFA Europa League stride was definitely over. The Austrian rubbed some extra salt into Ajax’s wounds thanks to the 2-0 goal from Sadio Mané (low shot) and 3-0 from Soriano (ticked in). The goal of honour (3-1), shortly before the end, came at Davy Klaassen’s feet, and was nice for the shooter himself. FC Salzburg was, clearly, a cut above Ajax.
“Salzburg was hungrier than Ajax. They always got to the ball first. They truly deserve their spot in the next round. They were just bigger than we were”, analyzed Frank de Boer afterwards. “It’s now important to flip the switch to Feyenoord. We can be very dramatic about this elimination, but Salzburg is simply a very good team. We need to learn from this.”
Thus, Ajax’s European adventure came to an end, just like last season, in the round of thirty two of the UEFA Europa League. The focus is now shifted: from Friday, only the race for the Eredivisie championship and the KNVB Cup matter. It’s a hard, but undeniable reality. The much hoped for, but unrealistic ‘Salzburg Miracle’ didn’t happen on Thursday. The Classic will be Ajax’s next interesting milestone.