Ajax can expect a tough return match against Manchester United next Thursday evening, when they will play for a spot in the round of sixteen of the UEFA Europa League. The Mancunians left the ArenA on Thursday with a 0-2 win. Ajax needs to make up their loss in the Theatre of Dreams.
Frank de Boer chose to start the same eleven players for this Europa League match as for the win against NAC Breda. The stellar names on the Red Devils’ roster made one thing clear: Sir Alex Ferguson was sparing almost nobody (only Patrice Evra was granted the night off), calling on his strongest possible line-up. Wayne Rooney, Nani and Rio Ferdinand represented the Red Devils. Club icon Ryan Giggs was unfortunately not in Amsterdam due to an injury. Fellow club icon Paul Scholes started on the bench. Stars like Rooney, Michael Carrick and Ferdinand were returning to the ArenA for this match; they had previously been here in August 2011 to play on Edwin van der Sar’s Dream team, for the occasion of his retirement match of honour against Ajax.
Ajax was impressive in the first half. With play that was, at times, bold and fierce, last season’s Champions League finalist was kept on its toes. De Boer’s team’s offense resulted in Manchester’s box being surrounded, followed by a short series of opportunities. After a Christian Eriksen heel ball, Siem de Jong fired a shot from the second line which forced keeper David de Gea to do his best to make the save. De Jong’s header, one minute later, disappeared over the goal of Edwin van der Sar’s successor. A few minutes later, it was Eriksen’s turn to put the Spanish goalie under fire. The left midfielder’s shot lost steam and aim, and disappeared into De Gea’s hands.
“The first half was played exactly how we want to see it”, said Frank de Boer, looking back on the duel against Manchester United. “Our organization was good and we put pressure at the right moments. Of course United posed threats, but we had a good Kenneth Vermeer to answer them.”
Amsterdam’s nerve promised a good second half. The atmosphere in the almost sold out Amsterdam ArenA was great. The ambiance was worthy of a Champions League match. “I really enjoyed the crowd”, was De Boer’s compliment to the Ajax fans. “It was really positive that everyone stood behind the team one hundred per cent.”
The Amsterdam offensive before the break aside, the English record holding champion was by far the superior team after the break. The Mancunians transitioned into a higher gear, which was lethal for Ajax. In the first minutes after referee Gianluca Rocchi resumed play, Vermeer was faced with razor sharp shots from Nani, Hernández, and an unfortunate header from defender Toby Alderweireld. Before an hour had been played, the English team managed to cash in on one of their attempts. A Nani pass landed, via Alderweireld, at midfielder Ashley Young’s feet. He shot straight in from close by: 0-1.
De Boer reacted by substituting Bulykin for Ricardo van Rhijn. Siem de Jong moved into centre forward. Anita took over De Jong’s position at the middle line, and Van Rhijn did the same with Anita’s starting position at right back. With the changes, a second English goal, which would destroy Ajax’s chances for the return, had to be avoided at all costs. Nicolai Boilesen (for Koppers) came in to strengthen Ajax’s defence. The left back made his re-entry after a five month recovery from a hamstring injury. Boilesen celebrated his return on his twentieth birthday. Jody Lukoki relieved Aras Özbiliz in the closing phase.
Five minutes before time, the 19 time English champion attacked again. After a fluid, difficult to stop combination with Rooney through Ajax’s defensive heart, Hernández pulled the trigger: 0-2. “A typically good transition”, said De Boer of the beautifully executed 0-2 afterwards. “Whatever Real Madrid can do, Manchester United can do, too. I missed the strength with us in the second half. You need to be at one hundred per cent against Manchester United. That wasn’t the case today, and then you know you’ll have a hard time.”
If Miralem Sulejmani had just shot or made a pass, Ajax would have scored. The Serb lifted the ball too high over the Manchester goal. “Unfortunately, Sulejmani made the wrong choice”, said De Boer. “We need to be realistic for the return.” With a smile: “We’re going for 0-3.” Serious once again: “It will be a match to build some experience with. We’ll play our own game and not dig our heels in.”
After the 0-2 defeat in Amsterdam, Ajax needs a miracle to assure themselves of a spot in the Europa League round of sixteen. There is one small advantage. When Ajax enters the Theatre of Dreams – Old Trafford’s nickname – that theatre would be an outstanding place to make that dream come true.