Everything was uncertain up until the last minute in the Amsterdam ArenA. Ajax faced an early 1-0 deficit in the last group match in the UEFA Champions League against Bayern München and Maccabi Tel-Aviv took a 1-0 lead against Juventus, so the 'Club Brugge scenario' again seemed to become a reality. But Ajax recovered well and drew with Bayern 2-2. And because Juventus kept Maccabi at 1-1, Ajax went through to the next round of the UEFA Cup and thus achieved the goal set by the technical staff.
Of course, that was quite a relief. ,,For everyone, really, said Ronald Koeman afterwards. The coach did have something to explain, as he had passed over his captain Rafael van der Vaart for this crucial match. ,,We talked with Rafael for a long time, about what his role would be. I wanted to play him as a withdrawn left winger, but he indicated that he would not be happy in that role. Another position in midfield was not possible, because I wanted to play with De Jong, Galásek and Sneijder. So it was either with Rafael or a real left winger.
It turned out to be the latter option. Nicolae Mitea played, but Koeman was not really satisfied with the left flank. At 1-1, Nourdin Boukhari had been warming up for quite some time, but Ronald Koeman waited a little bit longer. He was promptly rewarded for that. With a great move through the middle, assisted by Wesley Sneijder, Mitea gave his team the 2-1 advantage.
Ajax deserved that. The team from Amsterdam had 62 per cent of possession in the first half, and that after an unlucky start. ,,We did not begin well'', said Koeman. ,,We had problems with their midfield because Ballack played more withdrawn than we had expected. Nigel de Jong had to come forward more than we wanted, and the 0-1 came at a bad moment.''
Bad communication between Zdenek Grygera and Hatem Trabelsi made that Roy Makaay got the ball in the 9th minute and the Dutch striker struck it beautifully past Hans Vonk in the far corner. Everybody remembered the 4-0 thrashing in Munich, but Ajax recovererd well, were positioned better and were more of a threat than the German opponent, who dropped back far.
Half an hour later, Tomás Galásek's shot was changed by a German foot and it went in past goalkeeper Kahn: 1-1. But in Israel it was still 1-0 and with that result, Ajax would miss the UEFA Cup.
Thirteen minutes into the second half, Nigel de Jong seemed to put Ajax up 2-1, but the linesman saw offside. It wasn't. Ajax kept coming, however, and in the 64th minute, they took the lead through a fine goal by Mitea. Eight minutes later, Nourdin Boukhari took his place. Rafael van der Vaart came for the final fifteen minutes - for Sneijder - and Anthony Obodai replaced Zdenek Grygera, who had to be taken off with a mild concussion.
Bayern had done nothing until then, but made the equaliser anyway. Zé Roberto crossed the ball and Ballack headed it in, in the 78th minute. Because Juventus also levelled, Ajax still were through in Europe, but it was tense in the closing minutes.
When referee Cortez Batista blew his last whistle, the match in Tel-Aviv had ended and the hands went in the air in joy in the ArenA. ,,We deserved to advance in Europe'', said Koeman. ,,Everybody is relieved. At this point, it's normal that we cannot leave Juventus and Bayern behind us, but it would have been a disaster if would have ended fourth in the group.
The draw for the next round in the UEFA Cup is on Friday 17 December. Match dates are 16/17 February and 24 February.