Ajax goes down fighting in Europa League

Ajax goes down fighting in Europa League

Ajax’s offensive approach and focussed play didn’t deliver them the result they needed. After a scoreless return game against Juventus, Ajax is out of European football. “We missed Luis’ opportunism”, Jol pointed out the missing factor afterwards.

What can be done to repair a 2-1 deficit, especially on Italian soil? Ajax knew, after their 2-1 loss to the Old Lady, that their chances of going through were small. A place among Europe’s best sixteen teams was already reaching far. Ajax’s play needed to be focussed and flawless, and any mistake would be costly. The fact that Turin’s coach, Alberto Zaccheroni, saw his keeper Gianluigi Buffon forced to the sidelines by a thigh injury, seemed to be a lucky break for Ajax. In the first half, Buffon’s replacement Alexander Manninger seemed unsteady on his feet. But the Austrian remained unpunished for both balls that he dropped. The scoring sensation in the Arena, Amauri, retired to the sidelines after fifteen minutes. The Brazilian, now a naturalised Italian, suffered a hamstring injury. David Trezeguet substituted.

Christian Eriksen was the surprise addition to Ajax’s squad. The 18 year old Dane started in left midfield, to tackle the job ahead in Turin with his team. Out in front of him was the attacking duo, Miralem Sulejmani (who scored last week against Juve), and Marko Pantelic. Siem de Jong played close to his two forwards. The suspended Luis Suarez, watching from the stands of the half full Stadio Olimpico, doubled as a good luck charm. Despite the frustration of being relegated to watching the game, Suarez must have taken some comfort in seeing that the guest stand was fully sold out. Ajax was heartily supported in Turin by 1500 supporters.

Before halftime, the action was mostly in midfield. But the Italians were slightly more dangerous in the few times that play reached the goal area. Claudio Marchisio tested Maarten Stekelenburg early on with a low shot aimed at the lower corner. The Ajax keeper reached for the corner successfully. After a half hour of play, Ajax remained undamaged after headers from defenders Giorgio Chiellini en Nicolá Legrottaglie, playing up in front. Toby Alderweireld made the save close to the goal line on that last attempt. Midfielder Mohamed Sissoko’s attempt hit the post. In the first 45 minutes, Ajax’s only answer was a wild shot from Jan Vertonghen, which went over.

“Juventus wasn’t much stronger than Ajax today”, said Jol in retrospect. “Pantelic and Sulejmani didn’t manage to get the ball. Christian Eriksen didn’t get many chances to make the passes from the left. He could have been dangerous with a curving ball coming from an angle that few of our assists come from. Jan Vertonghen initially did a good job moving the play, but he had a tough time after the break too.”

As the match resumed, there were very few attacks. The home team’s defence kept Ajax at bay, far from Manninger. Eriksen therefore didn’t get much of a chance to show what he could do. The offense of “Zebra”, another name for Juventus, didn’t seem to make much effort to break through to Stekelenburg. In addition, the solid centre defenders, Oleguer and Alderweireld, didn’t let much through. But Juventus didn’t need to perform, and Ajax did. After about an hour of play, fresh reinforcement was brought in with Hyun Jun Suk. The Korean substituted for Sulejmani.

Alessandro Del Piero’s free kick changed directions slightly, and was ticked over the goal by Stekelenburg. After this warning, Ajax transitioned to a system with three attackers. In the final fifteen minutes, Urby Emanuelson (for Pantelic) and Dennis Rommendahl (Eyong Enoh) came to reinforce the team. De Jong kept the pressure on, and joined forces with substitutes Suk and Rommendahl to create an offensive trio. Emanuelson often closed in on the left side and joined them, forming an attacking quartet. Despite their offensive pressure, Ajax still couldn’t avoid elimination. David Trezeguet could have decided the game in the closing minutes if his header (served up by Mauro Camaranesi’s free kick) had hit the target. But the Frenchman shot wide. After the 0-0 game in Stadio Olimpico, Ajax has been eliminated. Now their full focus will turn to the championship and the KNVB Cup.
“We needed to score a goal here”, said Jol, visibly disappointed. “We just created too little. Juventus allowed us to have control, but the ball just wouldn’t go in. Being down two goals from the start is a tall order…”