A 2-1 win against Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk wasn’t enough for Ajax to qualify for a coveted spot in the UEFA Europa League quarter finals. After goals by Riechedly Bazoer and super sub Mike van der Hoorn (in overtime), the Amsterdam team ended up one goal short. This tiny difference made the elimination from Europe all the more painful.
‘Make it happen tonight. Let it be tonight.’ This Twitter message summarized the excitement around the home game against Dnipro. ‘Blood, sweat and tears’, was another succinct message, one that pinpointed exactly what it would take to make this evening a success. The UEFA Europa League return match was a true do or die for Ajax. The 1-0 loss in Kiev would need to be wiped away in the ArenA. At least two goals and a clean sheet was the formula. A spot in the Europa League quarter finals would give this season some extra colour for Ajax.
De Boer brought back Ricardo Kishna to his match selection, and also directly into the squad. The left forward had been suspended on Sunday (away at Heerenveen) for disciplinary reasons. Nick Viergever was also forced to miss the unofficial ‘dress rehearsal’ for the Dnipro game. The defender was suspended on Sunday, but Viergever was there to stand his own against the Ukrainian team. With Joël Veltman, he formed a solid defensive core.
Dnipro was experiencing greater difficulties in terms of personnel. Coach Myron Markovich has remained in the Ukraine, sick. The fact that their three pillars had been suspended (Ruslan Rotan, Roman Zozulya en Artem Fedetskiy had all received fatal yellow cards in Kiev) weighed even more heavily on the visitors. The job fell onto substitute coach Ivanov Olexandr’s to keep the ArenA quiet.
Ajax opened well in front of its own passionate home crowd. The ArenA was full for this second meeting against Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. After seven minutes, Anwar El Ghazi had the first chance of the match. Keeper Denys Boyko was barely able to deflect the ball over the goal. The Amsterdam offense remained scoreless.
Ajax couldn’t afford any other strategy. They needed to attack as quickly as possible. The added pressure o Ajax to be vigilant for a – likely fatal - goal against, called for cautious play. In that respect, Ajax – Dnipro was an exercise in patience. Attack, but defend in the right amounts. We need to be conscientious and grab our opportunities when we can”, said De Boer during the pre-game press conference.
The Ukrainian team gradually came into its own under the pressure from the Amsterdam team. Nikola Kalinic’s attempt was truly nail-biting. The centre forward almost scored on a pivot, but Cillessen made the save. Another Kalinic shot was again saved easily by Cillessen a few moments later. Cillessen had an equally easy task with an attempt from Douglas, the Brazilian strongman on Dnipro’s defense.
Ajax pulled itself together shortly before the break with a new offensive attack. This time, El Ghazi and Kishna were in the lead. First El Ghazi sent a taylor-made pass to Kishna from the right. In midflight, the left winger missed the ball by a millimeter. A few moments later, Kishna saw his shot end up in the hands of Boyko, the goalie wearing, interestingly, number 71. A header by Arek Milik disappeared wide of the goal. The scoreless nature of the match increased the tension as time passed. Would Ajax still be able to make it happen?
Riechedly Bazoer put Ajax on the winning track at exactly 60 minutes. The midfielder punished Egidio’s simple loss of possession with his right foot, with both style and conviction: 1-0. The Amsterdam team was only one goal away from continuing their European adventure.
The last half hour of the match remained inconclusive. Bazoer was the closest to scoring again in regular time. This time, Boyko did make the save on the Ajax youngster’s shot. Dnipro remained unflappable. Ajax escaped a goal against after missed attempts by Roman Bezus (wide header) and Kalinic (shot over, via Cillessen).
With lever Kolbeinn Sigthórsson (the Icelander celebrated his return after a long injury) in for Kishna, Ajax continued to hunt for that deciding second goal. Thulani Serero came in for the exhausted Daley Sinkgraven. But even with fresh reinforcements, overtime seemed inevitable.
Yehven Konoplyanka submerged the ArenA in mourning at 97 minutes. The Ukrainian captain was in the slot after a smoothly executed counter. Even extra force Mike van der Hoorn couldn’t help Ajax complete its mission. The assignment to score two goals remained too difficult. The super sub played two roles in the final minutes. Three minutes before the end of the second overtime, he scored the 2-1 goal, breathing hope into the ArenA once again. After Klaassen had hit the crossbar with his header, Van der Hoorn ticked the rebound in flawlessly.
A few minutes later, the quarter-finals seemed within reach for the first time since the 2002-2003 season. Dnipro would not allow the 3-1. After the final whistle by referee Aleksei Kulbakov, Van der Hoorn earned a red card after a frustrated exchange with keeper Boyko.
Thus Dnipro couldn’t be dominated, in the end. In these two matches, Ajax wasn’t much beneath the third-placed club in the Ukraine. And the happy faces of the cheering Ukrainians in the ArenA made this elimination all the more painful.