Ajax’s first of two third-round qualifying matches for the UEFA Champions League against Rapid Wien ended in a 2-2 tie. In the Ernst Happel Stadion, Ajax didn’t manage to hold on to a 2-0 lead. Davy Klaassen scored both times, ensuring that Ajax will have two valuable away goals to its credit for the return match in the ArenA.
Frank de Boer called this match the most important one of the year. The entire pre-season was geared towards winning this double-header against Rapid and thus ensuring a spot in the play-offs. To start with, the match was being played on historic ground in Austria, where Ajax won the Champions League in 1995. Thanks to the two away goals, Ajax will have an advantage on Rapid for next Tuesday’s match.
The average age of the eleven Ajax players was the youngest ever for Ajax in a European match. For his fortieth European match as a coach, Frank de Boer selected a squad with an average age of 21 years and 165 days. This meant that almost nobody on this squad had consciously experienced the CL win in 1995.
Nemanja Gudelj was the most surprising name in Ajax’s line-up. The acquisition from AZ was at kick-off in Vienna. Daley Sinkgraven took over the left winger position since Viktor Fischer wasn’t fit enough to play from the start. Jasper Cillessen recovered in time for this critical match in Vienna. He had no more problems with his calf.
After a good opening phase for the home team, which included an opportunity for captain Steffen Hofmann, Ajax took over the reins in the second part of the first half. In fact, the first Ajax opportunity in the 25th minute resulted in an immediate goal. Jairo Riedewald sent a pass to Sinkgraven, who received it perfectly. He then sent his opponent Stefan Auer astray, and made a tailor-made pass to Klassen. The Ajax captain shot the ball with the point of his foot past keeper Jan Novota. Immediately, thoughts went back to 1995 when Patrick Kluivert’s ‘pointed’ goal, into exactly the same goal, gave Ajax the cup. This fit into this evening, so full of symbolism, perfectly.
There was a true shower of opportunities for Ajax in the last minutes of the first half. With a bit of luck, the score would have been increased much faster. Anwar El Ghazi and Gudelj had fantastic opportunities in the rest of the first half. But the reward for all of hard offensive word came right before the break. The man of the moment was once again Klaassen. The blond midfielder sent a header, on a pass from Arek Milik, into the goal, putting Ajax into a very comfortable position. Two away goals within fifteen minutes was quite a luxury.
But Ajax was only able to enjoy its big lead during halftime. Three minutes after the break, Florian Kainz brought Rapid back into the game. The forward was just a bit too smart for European rookie Kenny Tete, and scored mercilessly: 1-2. This brought excitement back into the match, and the 43.000 fans made themselves heard in the lively stadium. The task was now to give them a reason to be quiet, but that proved difficult. It was now the Austrian second-placed team’s turn to hope for another CL adventure.
Red card Rapid
An outrageous move by Stefan Schwab resulted in Ajax being one man up in the last half hour. The Austrian team’s number 8 slid into Jairo Riedewald with both legs outstretched. There was only punishment possible: a red card. The Ajax teenager, fortunately, came away with only a scare.
This numeric advantage didn’t really benefit Ajax. The flow of opportunities from the first half had dried up, and it was the Austrian record-holding champion who became more dangerous. After Cillessen had made a save on a Stefan Stangl shot, he had to concede fifteen minutes later. Striker Robert Beric took advantage of Joël Veltman’s loss of possession. The Slovenian forward got the ball at his feet in the subsequent attack, and didn’t hesitate: 2-2. Top shooter Beric, who last season scored 27 goals in 33 games, made good on his reputation.
In the final minutes, Ajax came close to scoring its third goal twice. Riechedly Bazoer took a good long-distance shot and Sinkgraven saw his corner kick hit the crossbar.