Champions League

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Ajax reinvigorates vs. Barcelona

Champions League: Ajax vs. Barcelona
Champions League: Ajax vs. Barcelona
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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Sometimes, an entire team comes of age in a single night, the pent-up promise roiling to the surface and bursting to the skies in a mere 90 minutes. And there are nights when a team looking like yet another vintage version of itself, a team that’s undefeated both domestically and continentally a few days shy of December, comes entirely unstuck.

On other nights still, such as, say, this Tuesday, they collide.

That’s how Ajax beat Barcelona 2-1 in Amsterdam in the UEFA Champions League, in spite of playing almost the entire second half with a man down and giving up a goal on a penalty that wasn’t one.

But the win was overshadowed by an accident at the grounds: one fan fell 30 feet, celebrating what would prove to be Ajax’s winning goal. Multiple reports say the fan was helicoptered to a nearby hospital, where his condition was uncertain.

The script for this game was straightforward. Barca, even without injured star forward Lionel Messi, would wield its heavy might and crush little Ajax, the very club on which Barcelona has modeled both its transcendent youth academy and effervescent playing style. Ajax has seen its best players and coaches leave for decades -- for Barcelona -- and has long since faded from the European summit. They would just be happy for the experience the occasion would offer its young team. Ajax were without their own injured star forwards, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Siem de Jong no less, as well as Barca loanee Bojan Krkic.

So: the undefeated Catalonians and undisputed champions of “soccer played the right way” faced an easy night against a faded giant, grappling with its ongoing quest for relevance.

And that’s not what happened, at all. The brazen young Dutchmen, who saw their playmaker Christian Eriksen and defensive anchor Toby Alderweireld leave for Tottenham Hotspur and Atletico Madrid, respectively, in the summer, had little experience at this level. But that didn’t stop them from pressing and harassing and hounding their opponents high up the field and trying to attack on their own from the first whistle. They even had more of the ball for a while.

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Robbing Barca of these hallmarks of their game – time on the ball and oodles of possession –unsettled them. Overlapping on the wings through the excellent Ricardo van Rhijn and Nicolai Boilesen, Ajax gave Barca backs Carles Puyol and Marc Bartra fits with a workload to which they are wholly unaccustomed.

It didn’t seem at all undeserved, then, that Ajax should run out to a 2-0 lead before the half-time whistle. First, the immense Thulani Serero came streaking into the box late and unmarked, meeting the cross and poking it behind Jose Manuel Pinto. Not much later, Danny Hoesen picked up the rebound from a stinging Victor Fischer shot – parried but not caught by Pinto – rounded two defenders and wrong-footed the goalkeeper with a finish that dinked off Gerard Pique’s heel.

The contest seemed to pivot in Barca’s favor early in the second half. Van Rhijn sent a dreadful square ball to fellow defender Joel Veltman deep in Ajax territory in the 48th minute, putting it so far behind the center back that Neymar latched onto it. Veltman had no choice but to chop the lithe Brazilian down and avoid the goal. Neymar tumbled into the box though, even though he was fouled outside of it, and the referee wrongly awarded a penalty, which Xavi converted.

Down a man and up by just a goal now, Ajax bunkered in deeper and had to absorb Barcelona’s mounting pressure for some 45 minutes. Still, the Blaugranas failed to develop much of a rhythm, such was the ferocity and tenacity of the Ajax midfielders, and couldn’t carve out more than a handful of only half-promising chances. When they did appear to have made it through, the offside trap was on point and provided relief.

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The final half hour consisted of a long, raucous Dutch celebration. In the stands at least, as the fans sang and chanted and cheered to create a deafening din, making the cavernous Amsterdam Arena seem very small indeed as the glory of yore, when four European crowns were won, was briefly recaptured. The game was far from over and their team pinned back. But then there was a sense of inevitability hanging heavily in the air. Just as surely as Barca seemed to have flown in be in for a simple assignment, Ajax now seemed earmarked for this momentous upset by some divine right.

And surely, they earned the spoils they now enjoy. The three points they garnered knocked Celtic – who lost away to AC Milan 3-0 – out of contention for one of the two places in the round of 16 as well as the third-place ticket to the UEFA Europa League. Ajax are now assured at least of that. If they beat Milan away on December 11, they will move on to the knockout rounds for the first time since 2005/06.

The odds are small, of course. But then they’ve been smaller.

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