Ajax wasn’t successful on Wednesday night in securing a place in the UEFA Champions League after the winter break. Because of a 0-3 loss at home to Real Madrid, coupled with Olympique Lyon’s win in Zagreb (7-1), Ajax’s three point lead on the French team melted away. Ajax will thus continue in the Europa League. In the first half, two clean goals for Ajax were disqualified.
Although the situation seemed very promising for Ajax before the matches, the evening ended badly. The home loss to Real Madrid, combined with Olympique Lyon’s surreal victory against Dinamo Zagreb (1-7) brought disappointment and disbelief to a stunned ArenA. Six years after their last post winter break stay in Champions League, Frank de Boer’s team didn’t succeed in repeated the feat. “This is a huge blow”, was De Boer’s succinct comment. “You couldn’t have imagined this scenario in your worst nightmare.”
In the absence of the injured Toby Alderweireld, Daley Blind and captain Jan Vertonghen were the central twosome at the back. Right back Gregory van der Wiel, recovered from his groin injury, returned to the starting line-up. Group winner Real Madrid had left no fewer than seven starting players at home. Among the missing players were Iker Casillas, Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos en Pepe. Three days before el Clásico, a few other players had the chance to show what they could do. But Madrid, with stars such as Karim Benzema, Kaká en Higuaín, was everything except a B-team.
Earlier that day, a court case took place in Haarlem concerning the proposals put forward by the new management. In North Holland’s capital, AFC Ajax and 4 Advisory Board members faced fellow board member Johan Cruijff and thirteen others. “A tense day”, said Frank de Boer a few days prior to the match. “But the most exciting part will start at 8.45p.m.” Ajax’s coach was right about that, as it certainly was exciting in the ArenA.
The first half of the sixth and last group match was nail-biting. Under the ArenA’s closed roof, the halftime score should rightfully have been 2-2. After José Callejón’s early opening goal in the first fifteen minutes, Ajax scored clean goals in the 32nd and 36th minute, both of which were disqualified. First, a Nicolás Lodeiro goal was dismissed due to suspected offside. After a long distance shot by Gregory van der Wiel, the Uruguayan sent a header into the goal from nearby. The assistant referee raised his flag, and Ajax saw itself robbed of a rightful 1-1. Four minutes later, the flag was raised again after Vurnon Anita’s shot, via Miralem Sulejmani’s chest, landed in the goal. Ajax saw another goal disqualified by the Portuguese referee.
Under deafening whistling from the crowd, Ajax continued with the knowledge that Casillas’ replacement could be beaten. But that knowledge wasn’t worth much when Spain’s leading team struck again, four minutes before the break. Higuín came face to face with Vermeer, and the Argentine finished off in cold blood: 0-2. The jeering from the crowd increased even more, but a few minutes later, a heartfelt cheer went up as the message from Croatia was that Olympique Lyon was down 1-0. This made Ajax feel somewhat safe.
Shortly after the break, Ajax pushed again, trying to score. Jan Vertonghen (header) and Miralem Sulejmani (shot against the crossbar) came close to a goal. In the meantime, the situation in Zagreb made a 180 degree turn. Within half an hour, the 1-1 score became 1-7, sending Ajax’s previously positive goal balance into a negative one. “Especially at the 1-4 point, we had a few good opportunities. That was the time to turn it around.”
With substitutes Dmitry Bulykin and Davy Klaassen, Ajax went on the hunt for the two necessary goals to secure their spot in Champions League after the winter break. But it was becoming increasingly clear that their key to the next round was slipping away. Especially when Callejón brought the score to 0-3 in extra time, it was obvious that Ajax had come to the end of the road. What, beforehand, had almost seemed like a sure thing, had become mission impossible. There was nothing left for Ajax except coming back to Europa League after the winter break, just like last season.
De Boer: “Most of all, we need to take a look at ourselves, because we wasted our chance to get a point. Although six goals in thirty minutes in Zagreb is unusual. But I can’t really blame the referee. He deferred to his linesman, who could see it. As far as I’m concerned, that man can hang his flag up to dry.” The coach had only praise for the Ajax crowd. “I want to pay the supporters a compliment, because they stood behind us for the whole match. Their support was amazing.”