APOEL 1-1 Ajax: De Boer’s side fail to take their chances
“Ultimately, I’m disappointed, but also proud, because we were lord and master,” Ajax coach Frank de Boer said, reflecting on his side’s 1-1 draw with APOEL Nicosia in their second match of the Champions League.
The Amsterdam side had been dominant in an exciting encounter against a dangerous opponent and it may have been a massive improvement on recent performances, but they failed to take advantage of the chances they created. While the four-time reigning champions can bemoan the decision of the officials in giving a penalty against Ricardo van Rhijn for a handball, it is their own sloppiness in front of goal which they must blame for having to settle for a single point.
Drawn in Group F with Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and APOEL Nicosia, Ajax’s dream of reaching the Champions League second round looks set to go unfulfilled for another year. De Boer, though, thinks differently and continued to talk highly of his side and believes they will be in with a chance of progressing in Europe’s most prestigious club competition if they can replicate the standard of performances which saw them take a point each from APOEL and PSG. “I’m convinced that if we play like we have in the first two games, we will take points against Barcelona [in the upcoming double header],” he said after the game. While the coach is right to be optimistic after a bright performance, his side will come up against an even more threatening side to that which they beat in the Amsterdam ArenA last year.
And so it seems more likely that it will come down to Ajax and APOEL for third place to continue their continental campaign in the Europa League and while De Boer’s side will still feel confident of finishing above the Cypriot side in the group, they should have given their chances of doing so a huge boost in the GSP Stadium by taking the win.
The Amsterdam giants have been underwhelming so far in the Eredivisie, despite sitting joint top of the league. Tame in attack, weak defensively and lacking a strong link between the midfield and the forwards, Ajax have already come under a lot of criticism this season. However, the capital club were convincing in attack on Saturday with a 5-2 win over NAC Breda and they carried that form onto Tuesday’s meeting with APOEL.
De Boer made one key change for the game, dropping the exciting young winger Anwar El Ghazi for Lasse Schone. The result was an attack of three central players in Schone, Lucas Andersen and Davy Klaassen ahead of Thulani Serero and Nick Viergever and in support of striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, but it worked very well for them as it ensured they had good movement on and off the ball.
A constant source of inspiration and energy throughout the game, Klaassen opened up a great opportunity for the visitors straight from the beginning when he was found in space on the right side and squared to Sigthorsson in the middle of the box. With no defenders on him, the striker looked destined to break the deadlock, but managed to knock it wide. It was a golden opportunity and the Iceland international, who scored a hat-trick at the weekend, should have buried it.
Ajax didn’t have to wait too long for their next chance, though, as minutes later Klaassen sent in another cross which was begging to be knocked in but Sigthorsson, sliding in at the back post, failed to make the connection.
In control of the game, things were going very well for Ajax against an opponent which reached the quarter-finals of the competition just three seasons ago and a goal for the away side seemed imminent.
And it came after 28 minutes when Andersen fed a neat pass through to send Schone one-on-one with Urko Pardo. The goalkeeper kept the Dane’s effort out but Andersen did well to follow it up and slot home the opener.
Three minutes later, though, the score was level again. APOEL were awarded a penalty when the ball struck Ricardo van Rhijn’s hand inside the box – a harsh decision against the right-back – and Manduca stepped up to convert it comfortably.
“It was nothing,” De Boer said of the handball after the match, while Van Rhijn maintains he was completely innocent. “I got the ball on my chest,” the right-back said. “The referee had the best view and took a few seconds to blow the whistle. It was not the right decision, in my opinion.”
The decision was crucial and the visitors were unlucky to have been drawn level, but they failed to create enough chances to regain their lead in the first half. In fact, it was the hosts who could have netted the third goal when they launched a quick counter attack which ended with Manduca crossing it into the box for Cillian Sheridan but the striker could not get the important touch on it to knock it past Jasper Cillessen.
In the second period, Ajax were back on top and pressing to regain their lead, but APOEL were calm again on the counter attack and gave them reasons to worry. However, apart from two attempts, most of the hosts’ efforts came from outside of the box, while Ajax were more successful in getting into dangerous positions.
Van Rhijn stole possession from left-back Antoniades and knocked it in to Schone who only blasted it off the keeper, APOEL charge forward immediately but Sheridan headed wide. Then, the former Celtic striker had another chance as he charged forward and went down under a challenge from Cillessen, who had charged out of his box. It was a tense moment for the goalkeeper as the referee reached to his pocket but he was relieved to only see yellow and APOEL fail to make anything from the free-kick.
Cillessen later kept out another attempt and launched it long to Sigthorsson at the other end. The striker used his strength to beat his marker to it and open up a chance for a shot but his attempt was straight at the goalkeeper.
With 15 minutes left, Ajax introduced El Ghazi for the unfit Schone and Ricardo Kishna for the increasingly sluggish Andersen. The two young wingers were brought on to inject more pace, skill and width to the team and the switches almost paid off immediately as Kishna’s first contribution was to send a cross in to Sigthorsson but it was headed over. Just five minutes later, Kishna stuck another one right onto the head of the front man but the outcome was the same.
Klaassen followed on the striker’s lead four minutes later when he missed the target from close range too. Then, as the clock struck 90 minutes, Thulani Serero seemed certain to kill it off when Pardo palmed the ball down and it fell perfectly to the South African who sent it rolling wide of the target.
As the whistle blew shortly after, it seemed a golden opportunity lost for Ajax. The match followed a similar theme to that of the Dutch side’s meeting with AC Milan in the group stage last season. A contentious penalty decision played a crucial role in the match, but it was the team’s inability to take their chances which ultimately lead to their downfall. That match was significant in Ajax’s inability to reach the knockout stages of the group and the solitary point from the match in Cyprus means they still have a lot to do to take third spot in Group F behind Barcelona and PSG.
It was, though, a refreshing sight for Ajax. For two games in a row now they have created a lot of chances and looked very dangerous. While Sigthorsson could have scored two hat-tricks against NAC Breda on Saturday, he could have had another one against APOEL.
The improvement is further proof that De Boer is able to inspire his players to put in committed and sensible performances in the Champions League and it is that ability to ensure they play a level above themselves which will give the coach belief that his side can get something from their encounters with Barcelona.