Manchester United’s Theatre of Dreams wasn’t where Ajax’s football dream was meant to come true last Thursday night. Despite the impressive 1-2 win, Ajax was nonetheless disqualified from the UEFA Europa League by the Mancunians. Ajax can now focus on the race for the Eredivisie title.
Sir Alex Ferguson had made several changes to his team for this Europa League return match. Compared to his line up from last week, the legendary coach called on four new players. Among these new players was former PSV player Ji-Sung Park. The South Korean midfielder took over the captain’s band from Rio Ferdinand. Wayne Rooney was also absent due to throat problems. De Boer’s line up was practically unchanged from Sunday’s win against NEC. Only Dmitry Bulykin remained at home with a slight injury, with Nicolás Lodeiro standing in for him.
Ajax was immediately grateful for the support of the 4.000 fans in the fully sold out visitors’ stand. In the first minute of play, Kenneth Vermeer was put to the test. And three minutes later, Ajax was down a goal. The home team’s merciless punishment for Ajax for losing possession at midfield was both impressive and painful. After a lightning quick transition, the last Ajax defender was outplayed and Javier Hernández made good: 1-0.
Ajax’s mission at Old Trafford, which was to play its own game and make a real match of it, suddenly seemed like a pipe dream. With 85 minutes left to play, a humiliating defeat seemed to be in the making. Coming back after a 0-2 loss in the ArenA last week and reaching the Europa League’s final 16 seemed like an impossible feat for Ajax.
Ajax continued to play its own game and to attack. In the first half, this resulted in opportunities for Miralem Sulejmani (shot over), Aras Özbiliz (save by David de Gea) and Christian Eriksen (free kick which went past the front of the goal, untouched). Just as they had a week earlier in Amsterdam, the Red Devils clearly seemed to take everything in stride. Manchester United also let Ajax play its game. After all, with a 3-0 lead (spread over two matches), there was no reason to worry.
Ajax was rewarded for its persistence in the 37th minute. Aras Özbiliz scored the well-earned 1-1 goal, motivated by the desire to give everything in this return match in the Theatre of Dreams. After the ball, via centre forward Lodeiro and midfielder Siem de Jong, had landed at the right winger’s feet, Özbiliz hard shot went straight in. United came close to taking the lead again before the break several times, but Vermeer met each attempt with an outstanding save.
“I got very upset during the break”, said Frank de Boer, looking back on the first half. According to the coach, Ajax didn’t measure up to the level they could have. The Ajax coach simply wasn’t satisfied. At all. “Beforehand, I felt like we had a chance. But not when you start off so badly. The first thirty minutes weren’t worthy of Ajax. We were sloppy in passing, didn’t play aggressively enough, and lost possession too easily. After the break it got better, but it still wasn’t good enough.”
Shortly after the beak, it was De Gea’s turn to pull out all the stops. The Spanish goalie turned away De Jong’s header with a beautiful reflex. A minute earlier, Edwin van der Sar’s successor had seen Lodeiro’s shot sail over. Ajax was on the hunt for a goal and was clearly not yet ready to pass up on learning from this European match. Ajax’s offense went unrewarded in the beginning of the second half.
Davy Klaassen came in as a substitute for Dico Koppers in the second half, to earn some valuable football experience. After an hour, Thulani Serero was brought in. By switching out Eriksen, De Boer was clearly looking ahead to Sunday’s competition match against Excelsior. With an impending European elimination, safeguarding the chances for the title was imperative.
But the fight paid off. Three minutes before official time ended, Toby Alderweireld brought back the excitement by scoring the 1-2 goal at close range. Ajax needed only one more goal at that point to secure a spot in the next round. But, as Slovenian referee Damir Skomina’s whistle blew, the hope at a comeback evaporated. Winning at Old Trafford is something that not many teams achieve. With a good win in England, Ajax can confidently move forward in the last phase of the race of the title.
“The overwhelming feeling is disappointment”, said De Boer. “Especially since we left big opportunities on the table here. If you can hurt Manchester United, then you have to go for it. We could have done much more here. We need to demand more from ourselves and show more guts. We only did that a few times.” Ajax’s coach was pleased with the support from the many Ajax fans in Manchester. “I heard them during the whole match. They were an amazing support for us. I really enjoyed them.”