Win keeps Ajax on AC Milan’s heels

Win keeps Ajax on AC Milan’s heels

Ajax has won its first Champions League match since October 2003. They won a thrilling match against AJ Auxerre by 2-1 in the Amsterdam ArenA, bringing their total to four points, the same number as AC Milan has. Real Madrid is the uncontested pool leader with nine points in three matches.

Ajax knew that they needed to win against Auxerre in this third UEAFA Champions League group phase match in order to get through the winter break. And that’s what they did against the French club, who is facing many woes in the national league, and are firmly ensconced towards the bottom of the Ligue 1 rankings. Auxerre hadn’t earned any points in two matches against AC Milan and Real Madrid, and Ajax had earned one point in their previous Champions League match at home, against AC Milan.

Coach Martin Jol had enough players at his disposal, and, just as in last Saturday’s match against NAC Breda, he gave the nod to André Ooijer instead of Toby Alderweireld. His opposing coach, Auxerre’s Jean Fernandez, faced more serious problems, as he missed several key players: Mignot, Langil, Traoré and Jelen. The absence of Polish forward Jelen hurt the most, with the pressure now resting firmly on the shoulders of Kenyan player Oliech, who was alone out in front.

Ajax couldn’t have asked for a better start. After Rasmus Lindgren shot into the keeper, Demy de Zeeuw got the rebound. The Ajax player, who hadn’t scored yet this season, shot the ball mercilessly into the upper corner: 1-0. Only seven minutes had been played. Ajax shifted into a lower gear after this, without giving up much ball possession. In the 24th minute, on an Auxerre corner, Contout seemed poised to even up the match after a face- off with Stekelenburg. But referee Benquerença judged that he had committed a foul on the keeper. Four minutes later, Enoh unwittingly helped the visitors almost even up, as he saw a ball back played by Chafni go over his head. De Moroccan international wasn’t able to take advantage of the situation.

Ajax, who had been playing on a lower tempo for a long time, suddenly shifted into higher gear four minutes before the break. With a beautiful heel ball, De Zeeuw served Sulejmani on the right side, who in turn passed to El Hamdaoui. The Moroccan passed to Suarez with perfect timing, who then scored 2-0.

After the break, Ajax could have been sitting pretty, if only El Hamdaoui’s cross pass, and the subsequent sharp pass from Suarez, had been converted by De Zeeuw. But the midfielder, who was strong throughout, just missed the ball. This ended up being costly, as Ajax went one man down in the 56th minute when André Ooijer held Oliech in a desperate move. Valter Birsa made good on the free kick, 2-1. “I understood André’s reaction”, admitted coach Martin Jol afterwards. “It was bad that we had to continue with one player short, especially coming out of a strong first half.” Ajax had given Auxerre an opening, and was forced to fight to keep three points in Amsterdam with only ten players. Sulejmani was sacrificed in order to beef up defence for the rest of the match, with Oleguer coming in. Coulibaly almost tied the game in the 68th minute as Stekelenburg was leaning the wrong way, but Enoh was there to prevent the goal at the goal line.

Ten minutes before the end, the game took on a scrappy atmosphere when keeper Sorin didn’t play the ball back after Ajax had given Auxerre the ball after Oliech got injured. Soon after, Oleguer made his way - bleeding from a broken nose - to the side lines, after Oliech had taken him, and Vertonghen, down. The Kenyan received a yellow card, and, eight minutes before time, he was forced to leave the field after trying to score with his hand. Substitute Mignon was also sent off for arguing during his warm up. Thus, Ajax won its first Champions League match since October 2003, with a total of four points to date, the same number of points as AC Milan. “In that respect, I would have preferred to score a few more than two”, admitted Jol. “And I’d have preferred that Real Madrid had beaten AC Milan by more than 2-0. But we did everything that we needed to do.”