After having played what coach Frank de Boer called ‘the best football under our regime’ during the first half and creating opportunity upon opportunity, a lucky shot by Alex, put an end to our squad’s hopes. 0-1.
It really was unthinkable that Spartak would win, because Ajax had been created ample opportunities. Just as in the game against AZ, which was won 4-0, Frank de Boer started the match in the round for the final sixteen against Spartak Moscow with no less than nine ‘home grown’ players from the Ajax Academy. Demi de Zeeuw and Miralem Sulejmani were the only ones never to have played at the Academy. The others have all known the desired style of play from an early age and on Thursday they had another chance to demonstrate that in the UEFA Europa League. And in the first half they did play the way Frank de Boer wants them to. They applied pressure, there were combinations and they were fierce. ,,I think during the first half we played the best football under our regime”, said the coach, who was disappointed about the result, but not about the squad’s game. Within less than a minute the good play led to a huge opportunity for Siem de Jong, who found himself facing the keeper alone. Because of Mounir El Hamdaoui’s disciplinary suspension, De Jong played centre forward again and his decision to take the shot was rash.
But Ajax continued, pushing Spartak right back into their own defence, which resembled a handball defence most of the time, and carried out attack upon attack. Daley Blind, who had turned 21 the day before the match, found De Jong in the seventh minute. His header only just passed over the crossbar. Five minutes later goalkeeper Andriy Dykan tapped Lorenzo Ebecilio’s beautifully spinning shot over the goal and it was clear in everyone’s mind that Spartak would fold under Ajax’ pressure. Subsequent chances followed for Demy de Zeeuw and after the referee had interrupted the game due to fireworks being let off, Sulejmani came close to a goal with a beautiful free kick. After the most beautiful attack of the first half had died a swan’s death and De Jong’s almost certain goal was converted into a corner by keeper Dykan, the only thing Ajax could reproach themselves for was not having put Spartak well behind long before. The Russians had only managed to respond to Ajax’ aggressive play once, with a dangerous attack which was rendered harmless by Stekelenburg.
The second half saw a completely different Spartak Moscow. Coach Karpin’s squad, who has only played a cup match back in Russia, because the league there doesn’t begin until the coming weekend, now came up through the Ajax lines with multiple combinations. The first attempt on goal was in the 54th minute, by team captain Alex. Ajax responded in that same minute with a beautiful crossing pass by Ebecilio and a header by De Zeeuw. Unfortunately it headed straight for the keeper. But Spartak continued undeterred and Ajax, who wasted so many opportunities, paid heavily for that in the 57th minute. Again it was Alex, this time with an unstoppable shot in the top corner, 0-1. Against all odds.
After an hour Ajax appeared to draw level again but De Jong’s header from a corner just missed the goal. Ajax was lagging behind and Spartak were boldly looking to score their second goal. Enoh, who substituted for De Zeeuw in the 75th minute, tried to prevent that by constantly applying pressure, together with Anita. Spartak stopped pushing, was hoping for a break out and Ajax wasn’t as well organised as in the first half. However, occasionally the squad did demonstrate they still had it in them, for instance with Eriksen’s beautifully executed free kick in the final minute, which landed on the upper V. But it wasn’t good enough to leave for Moscow next week with a positive starting point. Ajax will have their work cut out for them there, to reach the quarter finals. And yet, if they can create just as many chances as they did this evening in Amsterdam, but more effectively, then maybe they’re still in with a chance. De Boer: ,,We didn’t reward ourselves for our good play, but it bodes well for the future. We kept applying pressure, we created opportunities and then it’s inevitable to win points or the match. We saw some beautiful attacks, let’s use those again next week and on Sunday.”