Ajax getting close to the Champions League…

Posted on 18 August 2010

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Match highlights to be found here.

For the first time in six years, former Champions League winner Ajax might just be competing in the lucrative group stage of the centre of European Football. The winners of 1995 had to deal with Ukrainian Dinamo Kiev, who, in contrast to Ajax, competed in these group stage in all of the past four years.

Only hours before the kick-off in Kiev, Ajax’ financial director Jeroen Slop proclaimed that the club “will sell some players in the event of being knocked out of the competition at this stage”. This remarkable statement, contrasting with previous statements saying that Europa League participation was what Ajax’ budget was based on, was immediately corrected by general director Rik van den Boog, stating that the 13 million euro’s that Champions League participation would generate would be “a welcome addition”.

Well, if not for the finances, it would be about time for the club to obtain the highest level of European Football for the fans, having missed out for five years on a row at this stage.

Ajax did not start out with the 4-2-3-1 formation that we’re so familiar with. We’re used to seeing Eyong Enoh, who returned from injury, in a destroyer role beside a passing de Zeeuw. This time however, Enoh occupied a central controlling role, spraying short passes around, completing 27 of his 29 passes . In front of him, Demi de Zeeuw and Siem de Jong, in a rather deep right sided central midfield role, completed the midfield triangle.This meant no clear player in-the-hole for Ajax, a role usually performed by de Jong.

The front three consisted of Emanuelson, who played a deeper left midfield role as the match progressed, and the two true front men Suarez and El Hamdaoui who showed an excellent level of understanding, despite having never played together before, by frequently alternating on the inside right forward and striker positions.

As the match progressed, Ajax’ formation transformed into a lop-sided 4-4-2 with no designated right midfielder, where de Zeeuw and de Jong alternated in picking up left back Goran Popov’s runs. This lop-sided formation provided a lot of space on the left wing, allowing Suarez to frequently drift out here with El Hamdaoui approaching something of a second striker role. This, in turn, opened up space for Ajax to make good use of Gregory van der Wiel’s attacking qualities, using him as a right flank player, more than just a right ful back. This was even more true after Gamash’ 56th minute exclusion. Note the difference in distance covered between Ajax’ left and right full back: 6,5k by Anita and over 10k by Van der Wiel.

Dinamo Kiev started out in a formation that seems best described as a 4-1-4-1, with Eremenko occupying a central controlling role and Yarmolenko playing a deep left sided attacking role. However, as the match progressed, a 4-4-2 seemed more accurate, with Yarmolenko playing off striker Shevchenko.

Kiev opted for a rather high defensive line, looking to put Ajax’ defense under pressure upon possession and succeeded in disrupting their opponents play at least during the first quarter of the match. Particularly industrious midfielder Vukojevic frequently chased the ball, even as far as to keeper Stekelenburg.

Meanwhile, Dinamo Kiev were looking to profit from small errors in Ajax’ unsure defense, where especially Oleguer, surprisingly preferred over Alderweireld, did not show that he was in fact Ajax’ most experienced European Football player.

About halfway through the first half, Ajax had clearly vacated their right wing as shown in the screen below. Van der Wiel started making runs on his beloved right flank and also Demi de Zeeuw and Siem je Jong started taking turns in making penetrating forward runs from midfield. All in all, this resulted in a better spell by Ajax, who, by then, started to dominate possession, even if only slightly (52% v 48%).

Ajax’ best goal-scoring opportunity came after a penetrating de Zeeuw run, moving from midfield past Kiev’s back line and cleverly preventing offside by clearly withdrawing from play at just the right time. Suarez’ ensuing effort was excellently stopped by Kiev’s 17 year old goalkeeper Koval who did just enough to push the ball beside the far post.

After this tactically rather interesting first half, the second half started out rather tame with both teams clearly doubting whether to pursue a goal or to focus on not conceding a goal. This dilemma is as old as two legged matches with the away-goals rule and will shortly see a more scientific approach on 11tegen11.

The match clearly turned when young midfielder Gamash saw his second yellow card for a harsh 56th minute tackle on central defender Jan Vertonghen. That same Vertonghen managed to equalize through a header from this same free kick, suddenly giving Ajax a bright prospect of the desired Champions League group stage.

Ajax brought Sulejmani and later Eriksen after Kiev’s red card, aiming to stretch their attacking play, anticipating on their opponents more and more sitting back. Van der Wiel now definitely played a right sided midfield role, which left a three men defense of Oleguer, Vertonghen and Emanuelson , who moved back a line after Sulejmani’s introduction, up against strikers Shevchenko and Yarmolenko.

But just like in the matches against Groningen, PAOK and Vitesse, Ajax ended up giving another lead away. And again their aerial incompatibility was part of the problem. Oleguer lost a header from a Kiev goal kick while Vertonghen and Emanuelson lacked all sorts of anticipation, leaving Gusev free to break the line and score.

After this goal, Kiev succeeded in defending the 1-1 score, knowing that after their red card this was the optimal result for now. Ajax, meanwhile, looked comfortable enough with a 1-1 away draw, since, as the pundits say, once you score the away goal, you’re good. We’ll see in a week…

Posted in: Champions League