Ajax has won the first leg of its Europa League matches against Steaua Bucharest, 2-0. Although centre forward Kolbeinn Sigthórsson had a strong comeback, it was defenders Toby Alderweireld and Ricardo van Rhijn who scored for the Amsterdam team in the almost sold-out ArenA. Thanks to this win, Frank de Boer’s team can now enjoy an advantage for the return match in Romania.
The Romanians had opted for a strategy of caution for this visit to the Amsterdam ArenA. Encouraged by three thousand enthusiastic fans from Bucharest, they sat back and waited for the counter, while putting pressure onto Ajax’s defensive line. At times, this strategy bore fruit. A simple one-two and Steaua headed for Kenneth Vermeer’s goal. Despite that, Ajax’s keeper didn’t need to make any saves in the first half. If a shot on goal came his way, it would go wide or over.
It was a shame for Vermeer that he had to be substituted at halftime due to a calf injury. This happened during a collision with a Steaua player, who fell on him in the 37th minute after a failed solo attempt. His stand-in, Jasper Cillessen, thus made his European debut in an Ajax jersey. That was also the case for Isaac Cuenca, who has come from Barcelona, and who made a strong impression against the Romanian team thanks to a few unflappable actions on the right wing.
Despite the fact that Steaua, with the exception of two good opportunities mostly dabbled, Frank de Boer was impressed with how the opponents played. “I thought we were strong, and so was Steaua”, he said afterwards. “My compliments go to them. They put a lot of pressure on us and kept it up for a long time. Longer than I had expected. Because they put so much pressure on us, the pace of the match was fast.”
In contrast to Steaua, Ajax did manage to create several good opportunities in the first half. The best one was centre forward Kolbeinn Sigthórsson’s, who, after a lingering shoulder injury, finally made his comeback in the squad. He received the pass from Viktor Fischer, gave it his spin and turned away from his opponent in a deceptively simple move. Unfortunately, his attempt was turned away by Steaua keeper Ciprian Tatarusanu.
While Sigthórsson, among others, almost scored, it was Toby Alderweireld who brought the Amsterdam team into the lead. In the 28th minute, he sent a beautiful header into the goal on a free kick from Christian Eriksen, who happened to be celebrating his birthday. His pass was crystal clear, perfectly catered to his Belgian team mate’s head, whose header then disappeared into the bottom left of the side net. It wasn’t the first time that Ajax has scored on play resumption during a European match. De Boer said: “We practice this a lot. We put the responsibility on the players for this. That’s paying off now.”
Soon after Alderweireld’s goal, Ajax scored again, 2-0. At least, so it appeared. After a quick combination with De Jong, Sigthórsson sent a controlled ball into the corner, but his goal was disqualified as offside. Nonetheless, Sigthórsson enjoyed a strong comeback into the squad. With his radar instinct, he still strikes fear in the heart of every defender. As De Boer said before the Europa League match: Sigthórsson is sharp. Afterwards, the coach was just as complimentary about the forward. “Even when the goal was disqualified, he remained cool and continued to play well. A true centre forward. I’m happy that he’s fit again. A good Sigthórsson is a definite asset for this Ajax team.”
Sigthórsson was originally slated to play less than the 83 minutes for which he indeed was on the field for. Due to Vermeer’s injury, he remained out there longer, although he was actually spent before that. “But he really wanted to score”, said De Boer.
Then about Siem de Jong’s role. Due to Sigthórsson’s return, he did go back one line, but from that position he definitely involved himself with Ajax’s offensive play. His assist in the first half was scrapped due to offside, but, in the 49th minute, he added another assist credit to his name when he sent a tailor-made pass to Ricardo van Rhijn who had stormed up ahead. The defender saw his opportunity clearly and sent the ball cleanly into the far corner: 2-0.
Ajax didn’t pose much danger in the second half. Neither did Steaua, although there were two moments in which the visitors from Bucharest could have scored. In both cases, they found the outstanding substitute keeper Jasper Cillessen firmly in their path. His first save was especially spectacular, when he kept an attempt, which had changed direction, out of his goal with feline precision. De Boer was very pleased with Cillessen’s performance. “He does very well in cup matches and with Jong Ajax, but that’s a different stage. Personally, I think it’s a shame that I can’t reward him more often, but concretely, I need to make a choice. In any case, I’m happy that he’s keeping Kenneth sharp.”
Thanks in part to Cillessen’s outstanding keeping work, Ajax will enjoy a big advantage for the second part of the showdown with Steaua. As they didn’t allow any goals against, Frank de Boer’s team could even lose 1-0 next week in Bucharest.
“But we need to be on our guard”, said De Boer. “Especially for an early goal against. If you go down 1-0 early on, then anything can happen.” After the match, the coach was asked what he thought was more important: Ajax’s two goals, or its clean sheet? “The clean sheet. That counts as double.”