Ajax played an outstanding match against Dinamo Zagreg in Pool A of the Europa League. Ajax defied their statistics against their opponents with a strong performance on Thursday night: 2-1. “I’m relieved, and pleased with this good result”, said Jol after the game, with a satisfied smile on his face.
Their matchup against the Croatians was something of a re-match with an old foe. In 1998, the guest team, at the time still known as Croatia Zagreb, faced Ajax. Croatia won this away game 0-1. In 2007, Dinamo were victorious in the ArenA, 2-3. An unfortunate result of this match was that this win had earned the Croatians a spot that season in the group phase of the then-UEFA Cup, at Ajax’s expense.
Ajax was thus duly warned of the opponent’s power and strength. Dinamo’s third visit to the ArenA was as leader of the Croatian League. Ajax’s aim was clear. After earlier stalemates in the Europa League against FC Timisoara (0-0) and RSC Anderlecht (1-1), Ajax was determined to win three points.
Ajax couldn’t have asked for a better start against coach Krunoslav Jurcic’s team. After two minutes of play, Robert Kovac committed a mindless foul against Luis Suarez. The most experienced player on the Croatian team caused a penalty. Just as in the home match against Willem II, Suarez took control of the shot. Against the team from Tilburg, he didn’t convert this opportunity; this time, his sharp shot didn’t miss the target, leaving keeper Filip Loncaric defeated, 1-0.
With Urby Emanuelson back on the starting team – the lefty was suspended against Willem II – Ajax played a relatively smooth first half. Jan Vertonghen was the undisputed leader on defence. Demy de Zeeuw was once again a strong presence on midfield, and Micky Sulejmani, Marko Pantelic en Luis Suarez made up a solid trio on forward. Vertonghen especially stood out. The Belgian was all over his duels, didn’t lose a single challenge, and gave absolutely nothing away. Proof of Vertonghen’s strong performance: after an hour of trying to keep up, forward Dimitris Papadopoulos was called to the sidelines.
Suarez’s tick wasn’t powerful enough, and Loncaric saw it coming. A bizarre moment preceded the midfielder’s free kick. Referee Thomas Einwaller thought he had given Emanuelson two yellow cards for wasting time. The Austrian quickly put the red card back in his pocket after realising that the first yellow card had been given to left back Vurnon Anita, not Emanuelson. Later, Suarez’s sharp free kick landed in the side net.
Dinamo was a shadow of the opponent they had been in previous matches. The Croatians applied surprisingly little pressure. Before half time, their best chance was a Leandro Cuffré’s header, which sailed high over the goal. Milan Badelj’s missed shot after halftime was symptomatic of the away team’s powerlessness.
Dennis Rommendahl marked his entry into the match (substituting for hardworking but unlucky Pantelic) with a goal. The right winger was handed an opportunity by Suarez, and scored with a close range shot. After eighty minutes of play, it was smooth sailing for Ajax. Two minutes before, De Zeeuw had hit the post. Or more accurately, after a pass from Suarez, De Zeeuw slid the ball against the post. Ivan Tomecak’s closing goal during extra time was just for the books.
“We could have scored three more goals today” was Jol’s critical assessment. Ajax had many opportunities, but too many of these remained unconverted. “The second goal took too long. When that happens, we run the risk of getting a bad surprise late in the game. Just like the late goal that tied the game against Anderlecht. But we achieved a good result against a strong team like Dinamo Zagreb.”
Dario Cvitanich came in for Suarez during extra time. The enthusiastic applause was, once again, more than deserved for the South American.
The solid win puts Ajax in the leading position of group A, after three rounds of play. Anderlecht and FC Timisoara didn’t score, leaving the top position in the pool for Ajax. In two weeks, Martin Jol’s team can take another step towards the next round of Europa league, when they meet Dinamo Zagreb on the Croatian team’s home turf.