Ajax 2-1 Barcelona: Cruyff principles guide Ajax to Champions Leauge victory over the Blaugrana
It was a display in which every aspect of Ajax’s game was tested to the maximum. Their attacking potency and bravery as well as their versatility and defensive strength were all pushed to the limit. A “historic night” which saw the Amsterdam side go from a fluent, attacking team of seemingly infinite potency, to one of catenaccio-esque defensive discipline and stability. The strolled to a two goal lead but in the end the victory was ground out as a Neymar-led Barcelona piled on oodles of pressure.
Frank de Boer spent 45 minutes coaching in the style of Pep Guardiola as his team adhered to the Johan Cruijff philosophy around which both clubs have shaped their entire playing and production systems. His side played with speed and intelligence, stringing together excellent passes and moving forward with attacking intent. Importantly, they showed at last that they had the end product to make it all worthwhile as Thulani Serero and Danny Hoesen struck the net in the first half. So bright were Ajax in the opening period against a side who had mauled them 4-0 in the Camp Nou only two months prior that de Godenzonen (Sons of the Gods) would be forgiven for believing that divine intervention was at play in the ArenA.
De Boer though spent the next 45 minutes more in the style of Jose Mourinho. His team went down to ten men only three minutes after the restart. The Ajax manager, who usually refuses to compromise his attack-minded style, was forced to hold his players back with a view to grinding out a result. Any other method with a numerical disadvantage against a team of such calibre would have been foolish, more than naïve. A change in shape, opting for the ultra-defensive, was made and the players delivered it with aplomb. The pressure Ajax applied on their opponents, so plentiful in the first period, dropped to the absolute minimum as they carefully, but successfully, tracked the runs of Neymar and co. They were first to every ball which dropped in the box – uncharacteristically referring to long, aimless punts up the park – and did very well to prevent their opponents from getting a clear shot towards Jasper Cillesen’s goal.
“We have fought Barcelona with the philosophy of both Ajax and Barcelona,” said De Boer after the game. “We achieved a victory thanks to our fighting spirit and our quality. The first half was very good, then it was unfortunate that we went down to ten men. But we struggled on with the assistance of the supporters and eventually scraped the victory.
“I think Barcelona proved they could win this match, but I think it was due to our game that they could not get more out of it. I think we did good things when we took the ball from them.”
Unfortunately, there was a dark cloud cast over the result. While celebrating Ajax’s second goal, a fan fell from the stands, smashing his head off of the concrete ground ten feet below. A pool of blood was evident around the fan’s head as gruesome pictures of the incident began to circulate the internet. At the time of writing, the latest report revealed from Amsterdam Police was that the fan was alive and in hospital but of course had suffered severe head injuries. Ajax player Davy Klaassen heard about it after the match and immediately donated his jersey to the fan.
While the wellbeing of the fallen fan sat at the forefront of the mind of all spectators throughout the remainder of the game, the players and coaches were focused on the match and they were able to see it through.
De Boer can only be happy with the performance of his players, even Veltman, who was given his marching orders only three minutes after the restart when he chopped down Neymar when he was about to go one-on-one with Jasper Cillessen. The referee was wrong to give a penalty for the incident as it happened outside the box, but there was no doubt about the red card. Veltman, though, had shown throughout the previous half to be a critical player for Ajax. He has been immense since his promotion to the first-team from the youth academy and his reading of the game as well as his passing from the backline was an important factor as Ajax dominated early on.
The Eredivisie champions applied immense pressure on their Spanish counterparts from the very beginning, refusing to allow Gerardo Martino’s men to settle and making it difficult for them to string passes together and build momentum.
The swapping of positions and speed of the movement of Ajax’s middle and front trios made it difficult for the Barcelona backline to mark them and allowed the hosts to weave through the spaces.
The home side made the pitch big through the extra width offered by full-backs Ricardo van Rhijn and Nicolai Boilesen and exploited it fully. Ajax maintained a very high passing tempo which was set by the exquisite Daley Blind, acting as the anchor in the midfield, and carried on through the young electrifying Davy Klaassen and diminutive and courageous Thulani Serero.
It was in this fashion that the first goal was created. A quick pass from Klaassen found Van Rhijn in plenty of space on the wing and the 22-year-old smashed it into the box with his first touch. It was flicked on by striker Danny Hoesen and finished expertly by Serero.
Ajax’s influence grew from then on and they came close to extending their advantage through Lasse Schone, who saw one shot sail over the bar and then a free-kick palmed away by Pinto. They hit a set-back, however, when Boilesen picked up an injury and had to be substituted after 34 minutes. They recovered through their versatility as Blind moved into the left-back role and the oncoming Christian Poulsen took up the centre of midfield position. In the moments it took for the Dutch side to adjust to the changes, Barcelona gained some steam and began to push forward but failed to threaten.
Ajax soon doubled their lead when Mascherano’s poor clearance was cut out from Serero. The South African midfielder knocked it onto Klaassen outside the box who touched it on for Fischer to fire towards goal. Pinto did well to block the shot but Hoesen reacted quickly and pounced on the rebound and knocked it home to make it 2-0 at the break.
While Ajax were free-flowing, intense and impressive in the opening 45 minutes, the second half was the complete opposite.
Barcelona started with a bang. Their pressure forced a poor back pass from Van Rhijn and allowed Neymar to latch on and burst towards goal. The Brazilian was brought down by Veltman, who was correctly shown the red card, although the penalty spot was incorrectly pointed to by the referee.
Xavi coolly slotted the penalty past Cillessen and thus kicked off 40 minutes of worry for Ajax.
Barcelona enjoyed 66% possession in the second period and were finally able to circulate the ball effectively. Ajax, on the other hand, became unnecessarily wasteful. No longer patient, calculated and smooth, they tried to rush the ball away from goal, resorting to long balls as they looked to find an isolated and well-marked Hoesen. Instead, though, they found nothing but a comfortable Blaugrana backline who quickly put them under pressure once again.
For all their possession, the Catalan side lacked the impetus to take advantage and find the equaliser. In the second half they had, including the penalty, only five shots. Two were blocked, one was saved and the other from distance went painfully wide. In the first period, though, they failed to register a single shot on target, seeing all three attempts blocked.
Crucially, just as Ajax had attacked as a team before the break, they defended as one after it.
De Boer was lucky to have a strong and capable young centre-back in the shape of Denswil to throw on in replace of Veltman. The 20-year-old reads the game very well and slotted in alongside Moisander to keep Barcelona at bay. Klaassen was imperative in doubling up on Neymar with Van Rhijn and hunting the ball down further up the field. Blind, notoriously apathetic when it comes to defensive work, also fought hard and committed to tracking back and putting in some strong tackles, while Serero and Fischer both put in a full shift to help grind out the result.
The Spanish powerhouse may have been without their Argentine icon Lionel Messi as well as Victor Valdes, Dani Alves, Jordi Alba and the suspended Alexis Sanchez, but there was still quality in the side. They had more than enough possession to earn a point from the game, but Ajax’s resilience saw them maintain the advantage.
It was a valiant performance, one which Johan Cruyff admitted to taking pride in, but it is not enough to see them through to the knockout round of the Champions League. Milan’s 3-0 win over Celtic in Glasgow means Ajax have to beat Massimiliano Allegri’s men at the San Siro in matchday six.
While the Rossoneri are not at their strongest, they will go all out to avoid defeat when they welcome De Boer’s team to Italy. The Ajax coach has insisted that his side must replicate Tuesday night’s performance to overcome the Serie A team. Now that he knows what they are capable of, he will demand nothing less from his players in that crucial fixture on the 11th of December.