High-stakes matches at home seem to be bringing out the best in Ajax this season. Yet again, the Ajacieds treated the fans in the lively ArenA to a majestic football evening on Wednesday. Olympique Lyon, a highly estimated opponent going into the game, was completely overwhelmed at times, and at the end, could count itself lucky to have only lost by 4-1. Ajax has one foot in the Europa League finals!
Of course, some restraint is appropriate. The difference between European home and away games has been considerable this season. Take, for example, the recent quarter-finals against Schalke 04. After a superior game at home, Ajax was forced to dig deep after facing a big deficit during the return game in Germany in order to earn a semi-final spot.
However, the ease and superiority with which the home team played, after a somewhat slow start, gives Ajax fans the complete justification to dream of the first European finals in 21 years. The only downside: just like against Schalke 04 at home, the final score should have been much higher. The match could have been decided at halftime, considering the balance of power and opportunities that was heavily in Ajax’s favour.
Peter Bosz had been forced to make some changes in his squad. Joël Veltman and Nick Viergever were suspended and were replaced by Kenny Tete and Jairo Riedewald, as Bosz had announced on the eve of the game. On Lyon’s side, top scorer Alexandre Lacazette was on the bench. Leading up to the match, there was much discussion about whether or not the centre forward would be available to play. Lacazette appeared to be fit enough to travel to Amsterdam with the team.
As has been the case before in top games, it took some time for the match to get rolling. The first fifteen minutes was more about testing the waters. Lyon was clearly better in the opening phase and was in Ajax’s half more often. The first opportunity was for the French team as well. Andre Onana saved a close-range attempt by Cornet.
The match needed some time to unfold, but when it did, all guns were blazing – at least, from the Amsterdam team’s perspective, since it was more difficult for Lyon after Bertrand Traoré’s opening goal. A sharply curving free kick by Hakim Ziyech was deflected by a fraction by the right winger from Burkina Faso, and it was enough to sign the first goal to his name.
A red flag
The goal was like a red flag for a bull. Ajax seemed liberated from the tension of the match and grew wings. The Ajacieds sensed Lyon’s vulnerability and went full speed ahead, seeking more. And the reward followed shortly after. After 34 minutes, Kasper Dolberg doubled the score. Traoré was once again invaluable. He freed Dolberg up with a header in front of goalie Anthony Lopes, and the Dane didn’t falter.
Ajax led by 2-0, a fantastic luxury, but the situation could have been even better before halftime. Amin Younes appeared, totally free, in front of Lopes and had his choice of corners, but his shot was stopped by the Lyon goalie.
Ajax retreated to the locker room to a standing ovation. Preventing goals against at home is currently holy in Europe, and in that line of thinking, it seemed logical that Ajax would defend its two-goal margin in the second half. But, to the great pleasure of the home crowd and football lovers everywhere, Ajax did nothing of the kind.
Ajax continued to tighten the screws. Lyon seemed overwhelmed again. Ajax’s reward came quickly. This time, Younes was able to raise his hands in celebration. The German was freed up and took a hard shot. Lyon seemed to escape at first, but the shot appeared to have passed the goal line sufficiently and the goal was accepted.
Ajax unfazed by Lyon’s goal
Surprisingly, opportunities continued to present themselves in rapid succession. Dolberg came close twice, but he failed to score his second goal of the evening. Lyon wanted to improve their outlook for the return match and Onana, with a good reflex, prevented the 3-1 goal from being scored by Nabil Fekir. Later on, he was forced to concede a goal to Valbuena.
It was a downer, but it’s to Ajax’s immense credit that they remained unfazed by this goal against. In fact, Ajax continued to march on. With Traoré’s 4-1 goal, the home team was rewarded for its efforts.
In the final minutes, the game ebbed and flowed, with chances for both sides. Ajax remained threatening, especially via Dolberg and Younes, but Onana was also put to the test several times to prevent another French goal. The Cameroonian succeeded with flying colours.
It’s a miracle that a fifth Amsterdam goal wasn’t scored, but it didn’t dampen the celebratory mood. “We’re going to Stockholm”, sang the delirious fans, while the Amsterdam ArenA shook on its foundations.