Afterwards, we were left with a gnawing feeling that there might have been more to get out of the game against Dinamo Kiev. Ajax’s first Champions League play-off match resulted in a 1-1 tie. Ajax’s 300th European match had two sides, but unfortunately Ajax only scored once.
Eyong Enoh was available for Martin Jo to use in Kiev. The Cameroonian, just back from an injury, played as a controlling midfielder, next to De Zeeuw. The biggest tactical surprise was the choice for Oleguer. The Spaniard took Toby Alderweireld’s place in central defense. Luis Suarez, and recent acquisition Mounir El Hamdaoui, played their first official match together in the Valery Lobanovsky Stadium. On the Ukrainian team, Artem Milevskiy surprisingly started on the bench. The young star could have made a fearsome duo with the experienced and cunning national hero, Andrei Shevchenko.
Ajax was unsteady at times during the opening phase, but came through the first half undamaged. The Ukrainian attack, led by Shevchenko, was a key factor, especially in the first half hour. Anita Vurnon’s exceptional save with his head and leg, bounced from the ground over the Ajax goal. It illustrated the extent to which Ajax needed to go all out to avoid going down. Maarten Stekelenburg ticked Shevchenko’s free kick, fired from long distance, aside. Besides the necessary showstoppers, a costly goal against was also prevented by strong individual performances.
Ajax also at times displayed its class out in front. Suarez and El Hamdaoui could have scored in the sixteenth minute. El Hamdaoui’s pass from the right remained the penalty kick area, just out of Suarez’s reach. Barely seven minutes later, El Hamdaoui was just a fraction too late to re-direct Suarez’s attempt into the goal. The adidas ball rolled wide.
Ajax kept cool and concentrated during the storm unleashed by Dinamo Kiev during the first half. The team from Amsterdam didn’t let the home team’s display of muscle bully them. Dinamo keeper Maxym Koval had a few tense moments himself. For example, a ball which wasn’t played back far enough was picked up by Eyong Enoh. The Cameroonian nearly made good on his opportunity, but got stranded – literally – on the goalie. A cloud over the game was Vurnon Anita’s yellow card. As a result, the left back is suspended for the play-off return match in the ArenA.
Before the first hour was up, the match took a strange turn. The notable last half hour saw Andriy Jarmolenko get a red card. The attacking midfielder’s foul on Vertonghen earned him his second yellow card. In the resulting free kick, Jan Vertonghen made good with a beautiful header. In the shuffle, De Zeeuw’s free ball was headed past Koval: 0-1. Ajax earned its much desired away goal!
But Ajax only enjoyed the lead for five minutes. Oleh Goesev rounded off his sprint with a low shot past Stekelenburg. Ajax’s defence had cracked for a moment. Even Emanuelson, who had sprinted to keep up, couldn’t stop the midfielder: 1-1. The sold out Valery Lobanovsky exploded with joy. The tying goal rang in a tense closing period for both teams.
In the closing minutes – with substitutes Sulejmani and Erisksen on field – there was one more tense moment near the Ajax box. Oleguer needed his hands and feet to stop substitute André. On the other side of the field, Suarez’s shot went just wide. But Ajax can be satisfied with the heavily fought 1-1 tie, despite the opportunities the team had to score a second goal. The result gives hope for the second play-off match, which will determine which team participates in the Champions League.
And the Champions League is the tournament that Ajax wants to – or perhaps must – qualify for. The Champions League flavour of the Dinamo Kiev - Ajax match was addictive. This flavour had been missing during the matches against PAOK Saloniki during the third qualifying round. The hymn (finally, those familiar sounds will be heard again at an Ajax match), the Champions League ball on the right sleeve, and a stadium clad in the Champions League house style will be back in Amsterdam next week.
After the match, Ajax’s General Manager Rik van den Boog made an appearance in the locker room hallway. He emphasized that a 1-1 tie, away from home, is a good result. “We very much want to reach the Champions League pool phase”, said Van den Boog. “That’s why we are doing everything we can to keep our current selection fit. We don’t have the means to buy new players. The rumours that we are making offers for several players aren’t true.”
Keep an eye on Ajax TV for a summary of Dinamo Kiev – Ajax, and the reactions afterwards.
Ajax plays the all important return match on August 25th. Tickets are still available.