For around 30 minutes on Wednesday afternoon, Ajax dominated possession, but struggled to create quality looks against Apoel. It was (extremely) early, but I have to admit to wondering whether the darlings of the ’18-19 Champions League were going to need extra time to reach the group stage of the 2019-20 UEFA Champions League.
Those concerns were misguided, as it turned out, though Ajax clearly missed attacking midfielder Donny van de Beek, who was out with a leg injury.
Ajax won Wednesday’s second leg 2-0, prevailing despite some early struggles against an Apoel club that packed it in deep in their own end.
Ajax joins the ’19-20 Champions League group stage – Thursday’s draw is scheduled for noon Eastern – after holding on 2-0 over two legs, as Manager Erik ten Hag’s club survived a poor performance in a 0-0 draw in the first leg.
The Dutch club’s massive possession advantage – Ajax held the ball for 74% of the first half – finally started translating into legitimate threats against Apoel keeper Vid Belec around the 30-minute mark.
Ajax’s Dusan Tadic had a great opportunity to open the scoring in the 41st, but was unable to put it away. The Dutch side finally netted what seemed like an inevitable opener moments later. Hakim Ziyech served up a beautiful cross into the box on a set piece, and Mexican midfielder Edson Álvarez headed the ball home to make it 1-0.
Right after halftime, it appeared to be – and should have been — 2-0 after another set piece that was poorly defended by Apoel, but a shocking offsides ruling by VAR took Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s goal off the board.
“Which part of who is offside?”
VAR takes a goal away from Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Ajax
— Planet Fútbol (@si_soccer) August 28, 2019
For a brief moment, Apoel appeared to equalize on the other end in what would have been a shocking turn of events. But the Cypriot club was clearly offsides, and order was restored at Johan Cruyff Arena.
Ajax continued to control the game for the rest of the second half, and Tadic sealed the deal with a beautiful strike past Belec in the 80th.
Dusan Tadic gets the goal that allowed Ajax to breathe easier. 2-0 and a place in the #UCL group stage is in the grasp
— Planet Fútbol (@si_soccer) August 28, 2019
Before we go any further, here are the 2019-20 UEFA Champions League Title Odds.
Time for an encore?
Now that Ajax has avoided what would have been a monumental upset, the question is whether they can once again make it out of the group stage and into the knockout rounds. If they reach that stage, they would be one of the last teams anyone would want to see.
Running it back?
While this is clearly not the team that dominated headlines last year, almost all their key pieces are back, with Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt the obvious exceptions. In fact, Ajax lost little offensive firepower from a year ago. Goals aren’t everything, but it’s still a huge deal that no one among ’18-19 leading scorers Tadic (28 goals in domestic play last year), Ziyech (16), Huntelaar (16), Kasper Dolberg (11), van de Beek (9) and David Neres (8) left this summer.
Breaking down this team’s chances in its UCL group will be much easier to do once we, you know, are aware of who’s in it, but let’s address a couple quick questions based on the team’s performances against PAOK and Apoel. Against PAOK, Ajax earned a draw in the first leg, 2-2, before winning Leg 2 at home, 3-2 (5-4 aggregate).
Are the draws in the first leg of both rounds of group stage qualifiers an issue?
Not really. It’s not as if this team was ever truly on the ropes, especially not against Apoel. This is no knock on the Cypriot side, but the only reason the aggregate score was 0-0 for over 120 minutes was because Ajax failed to score against a team bunkering down and hoping for a pair of goalless draws. Over the two legs, Ajax attempted 42 shots (15 on goal), while allowing just 13 (3 on goal) and holding possession for about 70% of the 180 or so minutes.
It is worth noting, though, that in last year’s group stage qualifiers, this team’s aggregate victories over two legs were 5-1 over Austrian side Sturm Graz, 5-2 over Belgium’s Standard Liege and 3-1 over Dynamo Kiev.
More importantly, what is the status of van de Beek?
Group stage play begins September 17-18. It is unclear how long van de Beek will be unavailable, but his recovery is going to be vital for his team’s chances. Ziyech was excellent vs. Apoel. And Tadic, as well as Neres, are going to create headaches for opponents, but it’s hard to imagine this team making it out of group play without van de Beek. With him at his best, though, it’s easy to see Ajax among the last 16.