Amsterdam Football Club Ajax have made it to their first European final in 21 years, so let’s take a look back at a journey of ups and down, nail biting finishes, and triumph through the Europa League campaign.
It seemed like such a long time ago that Ajax crash landed in the Europa League after being taken apart by FC Rostov during the Champions League playoffs. August 2016 looked like a dark time for Ajax’s European future. Losing 2-5 on Aggregate to the Russian side left Ajax dropping out of Europe’s biggest stage humiliated, and questioning their future.
Placed into Group G of the Europa League, their chances of getting to the group stages certainly looked hopeful, despite the poor European form. Opponents included Panathinaikos, Celta da Vigo, and Standrd Liege. What followed was just the first sign that this Ajax side, who were beginning to adapt to new manager Peter Bosz’s style, were a force to be reckoned with.
The Group Stage
On the 15th September the Amsterdammers began their campaign with nerves showing. Going behind in the 5th minute, they battled back to a 2-1 away victory over Panathinaikos, despite Klaassen missing a 2nd half penalty. Playing away in Greece is never an easy task, and a victory from behind offered a sliver of hope that things were looking up.
Matchday two saw Ajax dispatch Standard Liege in the Amsterdam ArenA, with Kasper Dolberg scoring the only goal, to keep Ajax top of the group.
In October, Celta da Vigo came from behind twice to hold onto the draw at home, with Orellana’s late goal earning the Spanish team the point in a 2-2 draw. Celta showed themselves to be Ajax’s closest rival for top of Group G.
Ajax then showed that their home and away forms are night and day, with an impressive performance against Celta at home. The Amsterdammers were 3-0 up until a 79th minute goal from Guidetti. The game ended 3-2, after Ajax’s focus slipped toward the end, but for 79 minutes Ajax were large and in charge.
Looking to end any doubt of their position in the competition, Ajax topped Group G with a game to spare, after a decisive 2-0 win over Panathinaikos in the ArenA. Lasse Schone’s brilliant free kick gave Ajax the advantage, and Kenny Tete put the matter to bed ten minutes later.
With the group won, Ajax travelled to Belgium to gain a point against Standard Liege, with El Ghazi smashing home the only Ajax goal. Remember El Ghazi?
Round of 32
Five points clear at the top of Group G. Unbeaten. Eyes were finally on Ajax, but the knockout stages are a different animal altogether, and for the round of 32 Ajax drew familiar opponents in Legia Warsaw. The two sides met in the Europa League in 2015, with Ajax sending the Polish side packing with a 4-0 aggregate win.
It wasn’t to be the same impressive showing this year, but Ajax nonetheless sent them packing again. A goalless draw in Poland left it all to play for in Amsterdam, and a narrow 1-0 home win sent Ajax through to the round of 16. Nick Viergever came to the rescue for what would not be the last time in the campaign, scoring the only goal in the 49th minute. Ajax held on to the last whistle, and they were over another hurdle. A hurdle in which fellow Dutch side AZ crashed out with a devastating 2-11 score on aggregate against highly-rated Olympique Lyonnais.
Round of 16
The round of 16 began with the first true low point of the campaign – an away loss to FC Copenhagen of Denmark. In fact it was off to a torrid start from the get go, as the home side were ahead within thirty seconds after a goal from Falk. Nerves began to show once more, and again Ajax showed that their away form needed desperate work. Half an hour in, Kasper Dolberg managed to level the score, but Copenhagen continued to outplay Ajax, and Cornelius gave the Danish side a deserved victory with a goal on the hour mark. The Amsterdam side returned home after suffering their first defeat of 2017, knowing they had to put in a serious shift to make it to the quarter finals.
And they did. Ajax were in typical form in the ArenA, controlling possession and creating chances. Bertand Traoré opened the scoring to ease the tension, and Kasper Dolberg scored from the penalty spot in first half injury time to put them ahead in the tie. No goals in the second half meant Ajax had made their first European quarter final since 1998.
Nerves were on edge when Ajax drew Germany’s Schalke for the quarter final, but only the best teams remained in the competition, and Ajax were out to prove that they were among that class. The Amsterdam ArenA hosted the first leg, in which captain of all captains Davy Klaassen hit the net twice to give Ajax the victory. It was all applause when the final whistle blew, but there was a feeling that Ajax should have had more. Hitting the bar twice and being indecisive in the final third meant that despite the dominant display, they had only a fragile lead to take to Germany. With Ajax’s away form, it was far too early to celebrate.
How do I describe the 2nd leg of this tie? Emotional rollercoaster? Europa League classic? Either way, Ajax’s European hopes looked all but over when Goretzka and Burgstaller gave Schalke the two goals they needed to force extra time. Oh, and to make matters worse, Joel Veltman did what Joel Veltman does and decided Ajax should try it with 10 men. In the first half of ET the German side fired home again. Now 2-3 on aggregate, away from home, with only nine minutes left. Who could possibly take up the call to save Ajax from defeat? Nick Viergever of course, who pounced on an attempted clearance in the box and diverted it into the net for a vital away goal. The players couldn’t contain themselves – they looked to have done it against all odds. The clock ticked away, and Amin Younes said it wasn’t enough. It’s never enough for Amin Younes, who fired a well taken shot past Fahrmann in the last minute to put Schalke out of their misery.
The final hurdle. Hearts dropped as Ajax drew Lyon from the pool. Many were saying Lyon were the favourites to win the Europa League, so the Amsterdammers had a tough task ahead. All of that worry and tension was lifted in the first leg, however, as Ajax played possibly their best match of the year around the French side, winning 4-1. Traoré hit the double, with Younes and Dolberg picking up a goal each, but again it should have been more. At times Lyon looked ragged, and Ajax threw themselves into the attacking third, but poor decision making and tame shooting meant Ajax lost out on a possible two or three more goals.
Still, Ajax took a three goal lead into the second leg in France, hopeful yet painfully nervous. If the Schalke match was an emotional rollercoaster, this away match was a nerve shredder. Kasper Dolberg effortlessly put it past Lopes to give Ajax a brilliant away goal, and a 5-1 lead on aggregate. The tie looked over, done and dusted, but Lyon weren’t going down so easily. A clumsy challenge from youngster De Ligt gave the home side a penalty, coolly dispatched by Lacazette. Barely a minute later a Viergever error gave away possession in the area, and again Lacazette blasted home from inches away from the goal. Suddenly the hard-earned lead looked fragile, but Ajax remained two goals ahead, and just needed to hang on. In the second half, Lyon threw everything at Ajax, and the tie looked to be slipping away when Ghezzal struck the ball from close range, deflecting off of Viergever and past Onana, putting them within a goal of forcing extra time.
Things went from bad to worse for Ajax when Viergever, who had played a poor game so far, made a reckless challenge and earned himself a needless second yellow. Minutes left in the match, with Lyon knocking on the door, and Ajax had to weather the storm with 10 men. But weather it they did, and after surviving attack after attack, and with the help of a fantastic Davinson Sanchez performance, Ajax had beaten Lyon. The final whistle blew, and a devastated Lyon could only watch as the Ajax players celebrated with the travelling fans.
Ajax Amsterdam, fielding a team of brilliant youngsters, have battled through the Europa League to face Manchester United in the final. Their first European final for 21 years.
24th May. Stockholm. Clear your schedule, this is going to be a good one.