Ajax has qualified for the UEFA Europa League round of sixteen. After a 3-0 away win against Anderlecht, Ajax also defeated them in the Amsterdam ArenA on Thursday evening: 2-0. Next, Ajax will meet Spartak Moscow in the round of sixteen. Ajax starts off with a home game on March 10, with the return match in Russia taking place one week later.
After the double victory against Anderlecht, Ajax’s European adventure is set to continue until at least the club’s 111th anniversary. With the cup final within reach, and the pursuit of the national title, Ajax is still active on all fronts. The matches will follow each other in a rapid clip in the coming weeks. To start, a competition match against PSV takes place this Sunday. The duel with Anderlecht served as a good dress rehearsal.
In the history of European football, it has only happened once that a club who has won an away match with a three goal difference then went on to get defeated at home. The statistics held up on Thursday night. The 0-3 lead from Brussels was never threatened. Especially not since Miralem Sulejmani treated the Ajax supporters to two great goals before the break.
Ajax started on field with the same twelve names that Frank de Boer has started in Brussels against Anderlecht. Daley Blind, who was spared in last Sunday’s match against VVV-Venlo, was part of the squad which made it clear to Anderlecht that a victory wasn’t in store for them. After a painful 1-3 loss last season, Ajax was well prepared to go all out in order to book a good result against Belgium’s champion.
Sulejmani took the lead in the first half. The Serb took advantage of his speed twice in the first quarter of the match. First, he scored in the eleventh minute, after picking up a pass from Siem de Jong. With the ball at his feet, he left goalie Silvio Proto without a hope with a low shot: 1-0. Six minutes later, he beat his opponent again, this time on a pass from Mounir El Hamdaoui, who had received the pass from De Jong. For the second time, Ajax’s forward scored coolly: 2-0.
For the 2.600 Anderlecht supporters who had made the trip, among whom were seventy of Jan Vertonghen’s friends and acquaintances, there was nothing left to do except to wait out the end of the match. For the Ajax fans, this was naturally not the case. With chanting and European flags, they enjoyed themselves thoroughly in a match which had been decided early by the two Sulejmani goals. The only blemish on the first half was Eyong Enoh’s departure. The midfielder was forced to retire after fifteen minutes due to a muscle injury on his upper arm. He was replaced by Rasmus Lindgren.
After the break, Jeroen Verhoeven made his entry into Ajax’s goal. The back-up substituted Maarten Stekelenburg, who made his way to the locker room as a precaution, due to a groin injury. Verhoeven thus made his Ajax debut at age 30 on a European platform. In his second official match, he kept a clean sheet. His fellow keeper on the other side succeeded as well. With a virtual 5-0 lead, Ajax didn’t have to apply any more pressure towards the Belgian goal. Ajax played out the match in a calmly controlling way, with an occasional nice attack.
“We definitely played a controlling game”, said Frank de Boer afterwards. “After two great goals, I also thought our centre at the back was very good. Together with the backs, they stayed on their man, and thanks to that, we didn’t give away any opportunities. That’s a compliment for the whole team.”
Spartak Moscow had ensured itself of a spot in the round of sixteen earlier in the evening. Playing at home against FC Basel, the Russians didn’t squander their 2-3 away win. The return in Russia’s capital ended with a 1-1 tie, and Ajax will travel to Moscow on March 17th for the round of sixteen return match. Spartak will be in Amsterdam one week before.