In a match full of drama and excitement, Ajax has done what many had considered impossible. Via Thulani Serero and Danny Hoesen, Ajax took a 2-0 lead at halftime, but things seemed poised to go horribly wrong in the second half when Joël Veltman was sent away with a red card and Xavi made good on the awarded penalty shot. But, with ten men, Ajax fought with everything they had. And they had a lot, since the 2-1 score is what remained on the scoreboard. Ajax thus will continue to play European football after the winter break.
Amsterdam had been simmering with excitement and expectation for hours before kick-of. The ‘Ajax- Barcelona’ headline had been anticipated for decades, and on this Tuesday, November 26, 2013, it was finally here in the form of the last European home game and the 75th one in the Amsterdam ArenA. With Ajax in third place in group H, with four points in four games, and Barcelona in first place with ten points in the same number of games, anything could still happen in this pool for AC Milan, Celtic and Ajax. The Amsterdam formation needed a good result in order to continue to play European football after the winter break, without leaving the decision to the last game.
Just like last Saturday against Heracles, they were forced to do this without captain Siem de Jong (hamstring injury) and forward Kolbeinn Sigthórsson (ankle injury). Frank de Boer elected to go with the same line-up as last Saturday. But Ajax wasn’t the only team with significant absences. Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino had to make do without the world’s best player, Lionel Messi.
Messi had played a key role in Ajax’s 4-0 loss in the first game, by scoring three goals. Messi’s absence produced mixed feelings in Amsterdam. Defender Joël Veltman had said that he would have liked to be able to measure himself against Messi. But that will have to wait until another time. There were many other players for the young Ajax man to spar against.
Barcelona came out fighting in the first minute, which resulted in Iniesta taking possession after only thirty seconds. Ajax may very well have received a lesson in how to perfectly execute your own game plan. But nothing was less true in the simmering ArenA. Ajax combined to its heart’s content and, via backs Nicolai Boilesen and Ricardo van Rhijn, made a strong showing. After Viktor Fischer had fired a warning shot onto hesitant keeper Pinto – replacing the injured Valdes – Ajax took an aggressive lead in the nineteenth minute. Lasse Schöne made an outstanding pass from the right, Danny Hoesen extended the ball with his heel and Thulani Serero scored, 1-0! The ArenA went wild. After a beautiful shot from Schöne had sailed over, Barcelona created some threats via Neymar. But thanks to a strong Veltman, the damage remained limited to a corner.
The first downer came a little after half an hour when Gerard Piqué kicked the outstanding Nicolai Boilesen out of the match. Daley Blind was thus forced to fall back into the left back position and Christian Poulsen took over at midfield. But the home team didn’t lose its way in this 75th
European match in the ArenA. Moreover, Ajax doubled its lead three minutes before halftime. Fischer took a hard shot; Pinto blocked the attempt, after which Hoesen was alert enough to send the ball in via Piqué’s leg, 2-0.
Ajax went into the break on a high. But within five minutes of play resuming, the mood had completely shifted. Joël Veltman did what he needed to do when Neymar seemed poised to take advantage of a bad Van Rhijn pass. The defender was sent away with a red card and Xavi made good on the penalty shot, 2-1. “Joël should have trusted his keeper”, said De Boer afterwards. “Now he got a red card and a penalty. And you then need to wait and see how it plays out.”
Schöne was forced to sacrifice himself for a new defender, Stefano Denswil. It was a survival race for almost forty minutes, during which ten Ajax players seemed to fight until they had nothing left. Keeper Pinto barely saw any red and white in front of his goal. Barcelona did everything they could for coach Martino to match Guardiola’s record of 21 unbeaten matches. Four minutes before time, Moisander missed Pedros’ shirt by a fraction, otherwise the Czech referee would have put the ball on the spot for the second time. Barcelona, who made a very determined impression considering that the team has already qualified, kept mounting the pressure. But in a nail-biting closing phase, Ajax, aided in great part by Davy Klaassen who continued to pressure the Catalan defense, held on! “We beat Barcelona with the same philosophy that both teams share: apply pressure to the opponent and find solutions in football. We also had a fantastic crowd.”
Thanks to AC Milan’s 0-3 win against Celtic, Ajax is assured of continuing in Europe. The team holds all of the cards in terms of determining at which level. They need to beat AC Milan in Italy on December 11 in order to continue in the Champion League. De Boer: “We want to return to Champions League after the break and I think we have the qualities to do that. But we’ll need to play the same way as we did tonight.”