There was a time Ajax would have had no fear about being eliminated from a European knockout round when holding a 4-1 first-leg advantage. Although Peter Bosz’s men charmed football fans with their thrilling display last week against Lyon and were hailed as a great club once again, there remained a cynicism around the Dutch capital that the job was not finished yet.
Looking to secure a place in a European final for the first time in 21 years, a youthful, exuberant side had shown enough defensive sloppiness and attacking profligacy in the first leg to give their French foes hope when they lined up for Thursday’s return fixture at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais.
However, while they gave Ajax an almighty scare with a 3-1 win, the 10-man Amsterdammers held on to secure their place in the final.
The 5-4 aggregate victory shows it was no smooth ride for Ajax in the end. Indeed, their issues were all on display, but this team has shown enough this season to be able to challenge Manchester United in Stockholm on May 24.
Bosz’s side made things tough for themselves. After Kasper Dolberg’s opener seemed to have completed a formality, they found themselves under immense pressure and were unable to get the game under control again.
It could have been a stroll.
Much like for the first 25 minutes of last week’s encounter, Bruno Genesio’s Lyon probed and pressed straight from kick-off, but their sloppy defending allowed the visitors to settle much quicker than they did in Amsterdam. Dolberg, Bertrand Traore and Hakim Ziyech had chances and a goal seemed imminent, but a mix of bad finishing and just slow reactions hindered them.
An Ajax goal had been coming before Dolberg finally opened the scoring, and the openness of Lyon’s defence and unstable midfield suggested Ajax were in for a simple evening.
However, Lyon grabbed hold of the game and soon they were creating the better chances. The key moment came when Matthias De Ligt challenged Lacazette to the ball in the box, only to give away a penalty. A minute after the France star sent Andre Onana the wrong way, he had him beaten again. Nick Viergever’s poor clearance let the home side maintain the pressure and it was Nabil Fekir, who found Lacazette at the back post.
The twist revitalised Lyon and Ajax were unable to regain control of the game.
When Rachid Ghezzal’s effort bounced off the knee of Viergever and in, things became ever more intense. Viergever was the hero for Ajax in the 3-2 loss to Schalke in the previous round, but his hand in two goals and the dangerous free-kick he gave away before being sent off suggests Bosz may be better off without him when they face United. Given Jairo Riedewald is younger, quicker, more technical and looked excellent in his place last week, it may prove a blessing in disguise.
Ajax did not create any great chances in the second period – in fact, Lyon came incredibly close to forcing extra-time when Maxwel Cornet’s shot from close range was knocked wide by Onana.
That he was allowed so much time and space inside the box was criminal, but it summed up Ajax’s incredible fragility, and their wastefulness at the other end during their brightest spell of the game is something that has haunted them for most of the season.
After their Golden Era-esque display last week, it was an incredibly ineffective and flaccid one from Ajax. If Jekyll was on display last week, it was Hyde who took over in Lyon.
The schizophrenic Dutch side will be hoping their best side turns up in Sweden. Either way, though, the second highest scorers (behind Gent) and most frequent shooters in the Europa League (229), will at least guarantee goals.