Ajax couldn’t win their first meeting with PAOK. They had several chances, but only managed to convert one into a goal. The Greek team evened the match late in the second half for a surprising tie: 1-1. The second match in the Champions League third qualifying round takes place in Thessaloniki next week.
Five days after their last practice match, which they won 3-1 against Chelsea, the first serious task awaited Ajax. PAOK Saloniki was their opponent on this crucial night. A good foundation needed to be laid during this third qualifying round. Next week, Ajax will have to force a win in Thessaloniki in order earn a spot in the play-off round of the lucrative tournament. Demy de Zeeuw started this all important match on the bench. The midfielder was still suffering from a jaw injury from the World Cup. Siem de Jong – who played forward several times during the practice matches – was back in his familiar position of attacking midfielder. The Ajax player, newly wearing number 10, was behind the attacking pair of Suarez and Sulejmani. Urby Emanuelson was often present attacking on the left side.
In the half full Amsterdam ArenA, with a sold-out and vocal PAOK stand, Ajax played well. In any case, Martin Jol must have been pleased with his captain’s form. Luis Suarez made his 2010-2011 season debut against the Greek team. The Uruguayan player proved that he hadn’t lost his World Cup form after his (and all World cup players’) very short holiday. Suarez had a chance to open the score in the fourth minute. The good attack, via Urby Emanuelson and Siem de Jong, seared over the goal and keeper Konstantinos Chalkias.
Chalkias and – especially – Suarez were in the spotlight again minutes later. A remarkable pinball – like situation, coming from a corner, ended with a stunning and precise overhead kick from the Ajax player. The fact that Suarez had hit Chalkias’ fingers right before he attacked was obvious as the Amsterdammers celebrated their 1-0. The injured Greek player (and PAOK captain) couldn’t be mended and was replaced fifteen minutes later. Suarez’s goal was not only important for the match, but also came with a bonus. Suarez’s goal against the team from Thessaloniki was his one hundredth official goal with Ajax. With this landmark, the captain treads in the footsteps of such illustrious, non- Dutch players before him as Stefan Pettersson en Jari Litmanen. These Ajax players from abroad also passed the magical hundred goal mark.
PAOK suffered under the pressure from Ajax during the first half. The Greeks didn’t even get close to Maarten Stekelenburg. The Ajax keeper therefore didn’t have a chance to show if he was still in his top World Cup form. Ajax had no shortage of chances to increase their lead during the second half. Sulejmani missed one of the biggest opportunities, with his shot going past. The Serbian Ajax player, forming the attack with Suarez, got possession of the ball on Urby Emanuelson’s header. Micky’s preparation (moving past Stelios Malezas in one fluid move) was good. His shot deserved a better fate. Suarez also missed the chance to make his 101st goal. The Uruguayan’s shot landed on, instead of next to, Dario Kressic, substituting on goal. But Suarez did get to show the specially prepared undershirt in celebration of his hundredth goal.
“The first twenty minutes were good. We looked fresh”, said Jol during the press conference. “We played our positions well and we had opportunities. We should have had a bigger lead by half time. But I can’t fault my team, maybe just that there wasn’t much movement after the break.”
After an hour, De Zeeuw came on field. The controller replaced Rasmus Lindgren. Soon after, Jol refreshed his attack. Sulejmani, suffering from a light hamstring injury, was relieved by Christian Eriksen. Jeffrey Sarpong also came in for Emanuelson.
The team which until then had made few waves came out with the sledgehammer eighteen minutes before the end. Vladimir Ivíc shot the unexpected 1-1 past Stekelenburg, a shot which was preceded by mediocre defense. Toby Alderweireld couldn’t prevent Dimitrios Salpingidis’assist. Ivíc left Jan Vertonghen and Eyong Enoh behind. ‘Steek’ could only look at the midfielder’s shot. The Greeks ‘first real shot on goal resulting in a celebration both in the visitors’ stand and the PAOK bench. Coach Pavlos Dermitzakis could only have hoped for a stunt like this on his debut with PAOK. The trainer started this week at fired coach Mario Beretta’s replacement.
“The opponent wanted to counter, but it didn’t work out”, continued Jol. “It worked once. Toby ‘forgot’ to make the foul and Enoh didn’t keep up with his man. That resulted in a goal. This is a pretty bad result for us. But we’re still alive. Am I afraid of the return?” Grinning, he says: “Well, we’re more worried now than we would have been with a 3-0 win.”
In the closing minutes, Toby Alderweireld fired a hard shot wide, from a corner. Ajax didn’t get much closer than that to a second goal. Although the pressure did rise when goalie Kresic missed a high ball and De Jong almost made good. Referee Tony Chapron, who gave out four yellow cards to Ajax, disqualified the attack. Suarez had jumped onto the keeper. Substitute Eriksen shot the ball over during extra time. Chapron missed a clear hand ball from Anis Boussaidi, in a duel with Suarez. The French referee therefore denied Ajax a penalty kick. With a 1-1 tie, it promises to be a hot evening in Thessaloniki for Ajax next week.