On Thursday, Ajax made a disappointing start in the UEFA Europa League tournament. The Eredivisie leader was completely mastered by FC Salzburg, the Austrian league leader. Ajax now needs a miracle to reach the round of sixteen after this 0-3 loss.
Ajax’s first Europa League evening of 2014 started off in style – with a downside. During the warm-up, Lasse Schöne had to call it quits with an ankle injury. The tactics thus needed to be amended at the last minute. Kolbeinn Sigthórsson was thus elevated from the bench to the starting line-up. The Icelander took over the spot that had initially been reserved for Bojan. Instead of centre forward, the loaned out player from Barcelona stood in as right winger at the 21:05 kick-off.
But it didn’t stop at that one setback. In the first half, one team played outstanding football. It wasn’t the home team. Ajax was outclassed in every aspect from the start by its punishing adversary, FC Salzburg. The relative scoring opportunities each team had before the break tells the entire story of the one-sided match. Roger Schmidt’s team had a seemingly endless stream of scoring opportunities. The Austrians’ efficiency was evident after 35 minutes, as they enjoyed a 0-3 lead. At 42 minutes, Viktor Fischer had Ajax’s first opportunity of the evening. The Dane found keeper Péter Gulácsi in his way. The Amsterdam team didn’t have many more opportunities. The halftime whistle must have come as a relief for the sloppy Ajax men in the almost sold-out ArenA.
“We definitely did not underestimate Salzburg”, said Frank de Boer, looking back. If you’re not in shape yourself, you can’t get out from under the pressure. We weren’t good tonight and we also used the wrong tactics. For example, we should have played the ball long more. Ajax wasn’t in the game for even one second.”
FC Salzburg – called Red Bull Salzburg in daily life – enjoyed a relatively easy first half. The Salzburg team scored its first goal within the first fifteen minutes. A badly timed and executed sliding by Joël Veltman brought Alan to the grass. Referee Clément Turpin pointed to the penalty spot. Soon afterwards, Jonatan Soriano (in the midst of whistling and jeering) sent Jasper Cillessen the wrong way: 0-1. Salzburg increased its lead quickly. Bojan’s loss of possession led to another Austrian attack. The lightning quick counter brought Sadio Mané face to face with Cillessen. The Ajax keeper was handily outplayed, after which Mané simply shot the ball in: 0-2.
The worst, most humiliating moment was still to come. The neutral football follower, an even perhaps a few Ajax fans, most probably enjoyed the way the 0-3 goal came to be. Soriano stepped over the middle line, after which he sent the ball flawlessly over Cillessen, who had come far out of the goal. This goal is easily one of the most beautiful ever scored in the ArenA. But its effect was like a sledgehammer for Ajax. After the painful, perhaps even unnecessary elimination from the Champions League, the team experienced a very humbling debut in the Europa League. A few days before the match, De Boer said that Salzburg had ‘impressed’ him with their 0-3 defeat of CL champion Bayern Munich. On Thursday, it became painfully clear that the coach’s assessment of the Austrian team’s strengths had been excellent.
Salzburg continued to have opportunities in the second half. Ajax needed to be vigilant of even more goals against and an even more dramatic (and hopeless) starting point for the return match in the Red Bull Arena. One of the very few highlights was Ricardo Kishna’s debut. Although the self-taught forward couldn’t do much damage against the well-oiled machine that was FC Salzburg. Fellow substitute Christian Poulsen was brought in to provide some much-needed defensive stability. Lucas Andersen was brought in to give his struggling team mates a bit of offensive creativity in the closing minutes. But the match continued in the same vein. FC Salzburg posted an effortless win and seems assured of reaching the round of sixteen. Ajax will be hoping for a miracle in the Red Bull Arena.
“We lost 0-3, fair and square”, said De Boer afterwards. “We’re going to have a tough time reaching the next round. It’s going to be very hard. Of course, we’re going to do our best in Salzburg to go for it.”