For the first time since December 10, 2014, Ajax is in the Champions League group phase. They celebrated their return with a fantastic win against AEK Athens (3-0). Goals by Nico Tagliafico (2) and Donny van de Beek, and Kasper Dolberg’s return created a festive atmosphere in the Johan Cruijff ArenA.
Erik ten Hag needed to make do without Matthijs de Ligt. The captain was unable to play due to knee problems. Frenkie de Jong took over the honours at the back, and Carel Eiting was at midfield. At 18:55, referee Carlos Del Cerro signaled the start of the game: the Champions League adventure had begun!
The crowd was the spirit, the players had wings
The tone of the game was set in the first minute. Eleven Greek players retreated to their own half, and Ajax, with nimble position play, hunted for its first goal. Passes by Dusan Tadic and David Neres created danger. The crowd was the spirit, and the players had wings.
After 10 minutes, AEK came out of its shell. This led immediately to the biggest opportunity of the game. André Simoes had all of the time in the world to send his header in, but his shot went wide of Andre Onana’s goal. Shortly after, Ezequiel Ponce was unable to control a good cross-pass. Hurricane Ajax had weakened.
Ajax took initiative (63% possession) back immediately, but they didn’t reach the level from the first 10 minutes again in the rest of the first half. The stodgy Greek team tried to throw the Ajacieds off of their rhythm with physical force and fouls. They had some success with this, as referee Del Cerro had his hands full.
From Marley to Nico!
The atmosphere in the Johan Cruijff ArenA got an extra boost at halftime when Ky-Mani Marley’s ‘Three little birds’came on. The supporters continued to sing along until Nico Tagliafico interrupted them.
A saved corned was played in again by David Neres and it landed at the Argentine’s feet. He didn’t hesitate and hit the target! Instead of Bob Marley, the chanting in the stands turned into ‘Nicooo, Nicooo!”
Ten minutes later, the Argentine had his second big opportunity of the evening. The free header was miraculously turned away by AEK keeper Vassilis Barkas. The Ajacieds’ confidence grew, and they continued to seek the attack.
Substitutions Van de Beek and Dolberg
Ten Hag was then forced to make his first substitution. Klaas Jan Huntelaar wasn’t at his best, and Donny van de Beek came in for him. It proved to be a golden decision. The substitute promptly scored the important 2-0 goal with a beautiful volley.
Right after this goal, Kasper Dolberg came onto the field. These were the Danish striker’s first minutes of play in an Ajax jersey since May 6, 2018. His return was much appreciated by the spectators. Finally, Nico Tagliafico provided the icing on the cake. He was sent in deep on the left side, let the ball bounce, and, consciously or not, took a great shot: 3-0! The return to the Champions League was a celebration.