On Thursday, Ajax will attempt to reach the quarter-finals of a European tournament for the first time since 2003. In order to do this, Ajax must make up a 1-0 deficit against Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. Frank de Boer and Joël Veltman looked ahead to the UEFA Europa League match on Wednesday afternoon.
In any case, Ajax needs to score on Thursday, and preferably more than once in order to prevent overtime or a fatal goal against. “And let’s not forget what they’re hoping for”, said Frank de Boer during Wednesday’s press conference in the Amsterdam ArenA, which is completely sold-out for Thursday’s return round-of-sixteen match. “We need to be conscientious. I’m not expecting Dnipro to give it everything they’ve got, so we need to grab our opportunities when we can.”
The last three seasons have seen Ajax eliminated before the quarter-finals. Manchester United (2012), Steaua Bucharest (2013) and FC Salzburg (2014) have been Ajax’s downfall in past years. De Boer: “In terms of strength, Dnipro can best be compared to Steaua. At home we played a fantastic match, but in Romania, we sunk. Tomorrow, if we don’t qualify, I don’t think it’s a disaster. I would simply call it a very big disappointment.”
De Boer has a fairly fit selection at his disposal for the Dnipro game. Only Niki Zimling is still injured. Viktor Fischer, after a long absence due to his injury, will most likely make his long-awaited return on Saturday’s Ajax Reserves game. Nick Viergever returns from a suspension. Ricardo Kishna, excluded from the squad for the sc Heerenveen match for disciplinary reasons, is back. “We had a conversation during which Ricardo expressed his understanding. This has cleared the air”, said the Ajax coach on the subject.
The current number three of the Ukrainian competition will have to deal with the absence of three important players for the return match. Roman Zozulya (who scored the only goal in the first match), captain Ruslan Rotan and right back Artem Fedetskiy have remained behind in the Ukraine. However, defending midfielder Jaba Kankava returns. De Boer: “Of course, Dnipro will be somewhat weakened due to these suspensions, but they have a good, wide selection. The replacements have built up quite a bit of playing time in competition at the European level. They’re not starting from scratch.”
Ajax had few opportunities during the first match in the Ukraine. But the opportunities that they did have were huge. Take, for example, Joël Veltman’s missed opportunity before halftime. “Would I have scored the goal here in the ArenA? I don’t think so, because it wasn’t due to the bad quality of the field”, said the defender on the eve of Ajax – Dnipro. “I felt that the ball landed a bit too far behind me, causing me to shoot it over instead of into the goal.”
“It would give a nice shine to the season if we qualified for the quarter-finals tomorrow”, said Veltman, voicing the general feeling among the players. “And we have a chance to do that. But we’ll need to score a couple of times. The game we won against sc Heerenveen (1-4) has given us the confidence we need. Besides Thulani Serero’s early opportunity, we hardly had any depth to our play. And against Heerenveen, we did have that. We need to continue in the same way.”
Frank de Boer isn’t afraid that his team will be unclear on what they need to do against Dnipro. Ajax needs to score a minimum of one goal in order to force overtime. Two Ajax goals, without a goal against, would be enough for a ticket into the quarter-finals. A goal against would mean that Ajax needs to score three to qualify. “A goal against would definitely be bad news. But if we can score two goals, we can certainly score three. That would give us a safe margin.”
De Boer emphasized during the press conference that Ajax has had difficulty this season in pulling the trigger when opportunities have presented themselves. “Especially in the second half, we’ve fallen behind regularly. In the last three or four games, we actually have succeeded in pulling the trigger. We’ve been having much more possession and aren’t losing the ball until close to the opponent’s penalty kick area, in the so-called third phase. Before, we were losing possession in the first of second phase, which is much more dangerous.”
To the question about whether Ajax – Dnipro is the ‘match of the year’, Ajax’s coach answered: “I live in the present. The match against Dnipro is our next match, so it’s the most important. Let’s hope that we qualify for the quarter-finals tomorrow, so that we can have more ‘matches of the year’.