Ajax can start preparations for a series of matches in de Europa League group stage. The team from Amsterdam defeated Slovan Bratislava 1-2 in their play-off return match on Thursday night. Siem de Jong and substitute Kennedy lifted Ajax to victory over the home team. “We are quite satisfied” summarized Martin Jol.
The Slovan Bratislava fans clearly didn’t believe that their team could recover from the 5-0 thrashing they received the previous week, and stayed away en masse from the Tehelne Pole stadium. As a result, the home of the Slovakian Majster seemed depressingly empty. Nonetheless, the enthusiasm of a group of die-hard Slovakian fans, as well as 250 Ajax fans who had travelled from Amsterdam, created a special atmosphere.
The match had a summer evening feel. Ajax started from a comfortable position, following their overwhelming victory in the ArenA. The Slovakian team came out hunting for a quick goal, as they had little choice but to play aggressively from the start. The pressure from Bratislava, combined with mediocre play from Ajax in the first phase of the half, resulted in a few dangerously close calls in front of the Ajax goal.
Samuel Slovak nearly scored the opening goal for Bratislava at three minutes, almost converting a pass missed by Robbie Wielaert. On the opposite side of the field, Luis Suarez – no rest yet for the key Uruguayan player - had an opportunity and fired a shot, just narrowly missing the goal.
‘Slovan were looking to come out strong by creating a storm”, explained Jol during the post-match press conference. “But it didn’t really happen. We could have just played the ball around for a while, but that wouldn’t have been appropriate. Normally, I would say that this victory was business as usual, but tonight, I wouldn’t go that far.”
Captain Suarez began the match on the right side, and Dario Cvitanich was centre forward. Urby Emanuelson often joined in on the attack on the left side. Siem de Jong, playing with number ten, often kept up with the offensive South Americans. Mitchell Donald and Eyong Enoh kept watch in midfield. Toby Alderweireld, kept on the bench on Thursday evening, took the opportunity to re-charge his batteries. Wielaert was given the opportunity in central defence, forming the defensive duo with Jan Vertonghen.
Maarten Stekelenburg blocked an attempt from Gaucho Botelho two minutes after Suarez’ chance. Juraj Halenar weaved his way through the defence with a shot, but couldn’t get it past the Ajax keeper. After Mario Bozic tried to get a shot past “Steek”, Ajax seemed to sharpen their game, bringing more order and concentration to the field. The direct result was Ajax’s opening goal, in the thirtieth minute. Gregory van der Wiel went deep and crossed the ball to Dario Cvitanich, who redirected it with a subtle move. De Jong pounced on the opportunity for a close range shot on goal, bringing the score to 0-1.
The wind went out of Bratislava’s sails shortly after this, as there seemed little hope that the home team could come back to win. Especially if Cvitanich had scored right before the end of the first half. The Argentinian had a clear path to Matus Putnocky’s goal, but was intercepted. After weaving his way trough his opponents, Cvitanich’s next shot was also blocked, as was Van der Wiel’s subsequent one. During the first half’s extra time, the Slovakian team caught up with Ajax. Jakub Sylvestr kept cool during a showdown with Stekelenburg, and evened the score to 1-1 with a short range goal.
Suarez, who was rested and replaced by Miralem Sulejmani in the second half, passed on the captain’s band to Gregory van der Wiel. “I thought it was best to pass the captain’s duty to Gregory “ explained Jol. Last season, Maarten Stekelenburg was the reserve captain. Jol prefers to put a field player into the leading role on field.
As night fell on Bratislava, Demy de Zeeuw and Kennedy were put to work, replacing Thimothée Atouba and Eyong Enoh respectively.
Slovan attacked a few more times. Gaucho Botelho managed to get past Stekelenburg with a shot, but the goal was correctly disqualified as offside. He followed up by missing another close shot on goal. Mamadou Bagayoko also made an attempt, which sailed over the goal. Kennedy scored the deciding goal six minutes before the end, making it 1-2. The Swede delivered a strong free kick, placing it directly into the goal.
The draw on Friday in Nyon will determine Ajax’s opponents during the group stage of the Europa League. “We thought it would be a tough draw against Slovan” said Jol. “But we scored seven times against them. We are quite satisfied with that.”