After playing well against Arsenal on Highbury, Ajax booked another good result in the return match in Amsterdam. The Champions League match in the Arena ended in a 0-0 draw. ,,We got the maximum from this evening and from the two matches against Arsenal", Ronald Koeman concluded. ,,If we end up on the same amount of points as Arsenal after the last group match, we'll go through."
Arsenal is better away than at home, Ronald Koeman said the day before the match. Statistically, he was right. The team from London had won nine out of a possible twelve points on foreign soil this season. At home, Arsenal managed no more than six points out of a potential fifteen. In the second stage of this year's Champions League, Arsenal had played away once. In Rome, the side beat AS Roma 3-1.
Ajax played away twice and once at home. Koeman's side beat Roma 2-1 in the Arena. However, that was with a different team: without Chivu, Lobont and Van Damme and with Litmanen, who made the decisive goal.
There had been little pressure on Ajax for that game. Pressure that will have been greater against Arsenal. From the own fans, for example. After the terrific performance in London, the fans hoped and perhaps expected that Ajax would shine on their own turf. And the youngsters maybe wanted to show that they were capable of at least copying the result. Before the match, Koeman said that he hoped for a bit of understanding from the supporters, when Ajax would not go on an all-out attack. ,,I think the fans realise that that will go wrong sooner than it will go right.
And so Ajax did not completely go on the attack. Ajax even played in a negative way, Arsenal's coach Arsène Wenger thought. ,,I respect everyone's opinion", Koeman reacted. ,,But Arsenal have more quality in the squad than we do, and we played to our abilities."
Koeman left Jelle van Damme, who was also hampered by a sore ankle, on the bench. Last week, the Belgian defender had no direct opponent, leaving Ajax room to operate on the left flank. The coach thinks Maxwell is a better option in that system, with veteran Witschge in front of him. Wenger had also made a change. He placed Martin Keown back in the line up and left Cygan out.
Arsenal seemed seriously impressed by the atmosphere in the Amsterdam Arena. Maybe subconciously the fact that Arsenal had never managed to win in the Arena played a part. Although it needs to be said that the games they lost during the Amsterdam Tournament in 2000 were almost the first time the players met after the summer holiday.
But this time it happened quite often that Arsenal held nine players behind the ball. Only sporadically the English side managed to execute their deadly counter attacks. There were some little chances for Henry - Lobont saved - and Bergkamp, whose shot went wide.
Ajax did not manage much more scoring opportunities. The young side could have taken the lead seven minutes before halftime, when Cristian Chivu - who had too many turnovers in the early stages of the match - took a beautiful free kick. Unfortunately for Ajax, Ashley Cole kept his eye on the bal and headed it out.
Ajax pressed forward in the second half, but that was also more visible because Arsenal started to fade. Wenger: ,,We play 60 to 70 matches in a season, you know sometimes you don't play as well. We tried, but without creativity. We wanted to be good, but it didn't happen. Ajax was very concentrated for ninety minutes."
Koeman made his team the same compliment. ,,We played better than in London. Then you tend to think you can afford more offensively, but Arsenal did not everything they could to try and win. They did not want to take risks and that is because of how we played in London."
The best chance in the second half was for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who tried to put away a great cross from the excellent Trabelsi. The Swede was unlucky to see his effort touched by an Arsenal player and it went over the goal. Seven minutes before the end, Mido replaced Zlatan. Koeman: ,,I wanted to bring Mido on, to try and get a goal. Zlatan had done his job."
Koeman was, just like Wenger, happy with the score in Valencia, where AS Roma won 3-0. Koeman: ,,Surprising. We are still on top, and we have matured quickly. Anyone who would have predicted this, would have been laughed at, but we're here and we will try to keep it that way. This is another step in the right direction. However, we're not back amongst Europe's elite yet, we cannot dominate opponents. If you look at the individual talent, Arsenal and Valencia are still the favorites to go through. But AS Roma still have a chance with that result in Valencia. They won't go down easily in London."
Ajax play their next group match against Valencia, in the Arena on March 11.