With appropriate numbers for a chaotic football night, Ajax defeated IK Start on Thursday. In Lillestrøm, Norway, the UEFA Cup match ended in 2-5 in favour of the Amsterdam side.
Considering the reputation and quality of both teams, Ajax was supposed to win easily, despite coach Henk ten Cate's warnings that his team would have enough problems with the Norwegians, whom he considered a better footballing team than FC Copenhagen, the team that knocked Ajax out of the Champions League. His words proved to be at least partly true, as Ajax had their share of difficulties in winning the match. IK Start made it their Dutch opponents difficult for more than an hour, on the basis of their courage and fighting spirit.
That Ajax were partly to blame for that, showed in Ten Cate's early coaching moves, when he had to react to his team losing concentration after twenty good minutes. ,,I think it was a matter of focus, which we lost because we started so well. But I'll say it again: Quality is only decisive when you work at least as hard as your opponent.''
Ten minutes before halftime, the Ajax coach made his first substitution of the night: Ryan Babel (who was rested) replaced Mauro Rosales and went to the left wing. Markus Rosenberg moved to the other flank, and not without consequences. Three minutes before halftime, Gabri set up Babel, who spotted Rosenberg on the right side. The Swedish forward gave Ajax the lead back with a strike in the far corner: 1-2.
That goal did not do justice to the picture of the first half, in which Ajax were the better team only in the first part. Klaas Jan Huntelaar scored the first goal after he put away the rebound from a Jaap Stam header. After that, Ajax dropped off significantly. The goal by Norwegian international Marius Johnsen after 30 minutes did not come as a surprise.
After halftime not much changed at first, with the equaliser by Geir Ludvig Fevang as a logical result. Roger left too much room and Stefan Bærlin could provide the unexpected cross. Ten Cate: ,,I am happy with the result, but not with the level of our play. There were too many ups and downs. We were gambling too much, it looked like a casino out there at some point'', said the coach referring to the number of times an Ajax player let his man go unmarked in the hope somebody else would pick him up. Which did not happen too often.
Bringing on Olaf Lindenbergh for Gabri after an hour was a logical move by Ten Cate. The Spanish midfielder was involved in the decisive goal, as the free kick that had led to his substitution was fired in by Wesley Sneijder: 2-3. Start coach Stig Inge Bjørnebye labelled that goal as the killer blow to his team, who could not muster the hope and energy to go for the third equaliser. When Roger made it 2-4 with his left foot four minutes later, it meant the end of a until then close match. Huntelaar, after great moves by Babel, made it 2-5 a few minutes before the end. Ten Cate considered Babel the only outstanding player on the evening, which said much about the team's performance: it was substandard.
Nonetheless, Ajax will doubtlessly reach the group stage of the UEFA Cup in two weeks. Bjørnebye labelled the retun after this match 'unfortunately a practice match', but Ten Cate disagreed. ,,We owe it to our home supporters to show them something and we have to do our sportive duty toward our opponents.''