Ajax played a great UEFA Champions League game against Dinamo Zagreb on Wednesday evening. Not only is the Amsterdam based team assured of playing European football after the winter break, but, thanks to its 4-0 win, holds all the cards to move forward with the Champions League in 2012, as Olympique Lyon lost to Real Madrid.
The big question beforehand was how coach Frank de Boer would start. Would he, after a double win against Roda JC (cup and competition), play with three men at the back against Dinamo Zagreb, or would Gregory van der Wiel return to the starting line-up? The latter is what happened, and Ajax played again with four defenders, three midfielders and three forwards. In addition to Van der Wiel’s return, right winger Miralem Sulejmani also made his comeback to the line-up. The two returning Ajax players made their mark on the match.
Ajax played a dominant game from kick-off, and forced their Croatian guests far back. In the first fifteen minutes, the almost 50.000 Ajax fans in the Amsterdam ArenA broke out into celebration twice. In the second minute, a Christian Eriksen shot went just wide, and in the seventh minute, a beautiful pass from Toby Alderweireld found Theo Janssen, whose shot was just too high. On the other side, Dinamo Zagreb, fighting for its last chance to remain in European football after the winter break, made attempts with a good header from a corner by Jerko Leko, which went just wide. Ajax’s only setbacks in the first fifteen minutes were yellow cards for Vurnon Anita and Eyong Enoh.
Although the first fifteen minutes was hard work, the second was unusually entertaining for the home crowd. In the twentieth minute, Eriksen, with an unbelievable heel ball, found Van der Wiel, who had come up, and who promptly celebrated his return with a searing shot high in keeper Kelava’s near corner: 1-0. With that, an end finally came to Ajax’s 248 scoreless minutes in the Amsterdam ArenA during Champions League play. But Ajax persisted, and five minutes after the opening goal, Enoh, despite being heavily covered by a Croatian defender, found Siem de Jong. He ticked the ball through to Sulejmani, and the Serb made good beautifully: 2-0.
Ajax definitely felt like the master of the house on its own grass field. This was apparent in their offensive plan of attack, as central defender Jan Vertonghen was the ending point of an offensive play no fewer than two times, but failed to make good either time. After that, Kelava was busy with a header from his own defender, Vida. Zagreb tried to make something happen before the break, but left back Ibanez’s wild shot went over. The best opportunity after that came from Ajax once again. Alderweireld’s header, on a corner from Eriksen, went into the side net.
The second half was easier on the nerves. Ajax controlled well, and was dangerous at times. Siem de Jong had a great chance in the 56th minute, but the keeper’s fists got in his way. He had another chance in the 65th minute, and this time, made good on it. Van der Wiel once again played a large part in the goal. He came through well from the right side, and passed to Eriksen in the penalty kick area. The Dane, in turn, served De Jong with a heel ball. The centre forward rounded off the play with a goal: 3-0. With three sets of fresh legs on the field, Lukoki, Ebecilio and Lodeiro, Ajax continued to try to increase their goal balance. Thanks to Nicolas Lodeiro, they did this in extra time. The Uruguayan scored nicely: 4-0. In this group phase, it was Ajax’s third shut-out. The last club to be defeated 4-0 in Amsterdam during a Champions League game was Ferecvaros, in December 1995. “I’m proud”, said De Boer emotionally afterwards. “Internationally, it’s a great feat to win 4-0. That’s how I like to see Ajax. We continued to apply pressure.”
With an eye on second place in the group, Ajax did a good job. On top of a three point lead on Olympique Lyon, who lost at home to Real Madrid, Ajax also has a better goal balance than the French team. “In Lyon, a 0-0 score might be enough now that we have a good goal balance”, calculated De Boer. “But we’ll play our own game there, but smartly. Just like the Italians, we can sit back and wait. We won’t be attacking blindly. Lyon is tricky, especially at home. But it’s a great feeling to go there with a three point lead.”