THURSDAY 13th APRIL 2017
UEFA EUROPA LEAGUE – QUARTER-FINALS – FIRST LEG
AJAX 2-0 SCHALKE
A double from Ajax skipper, Davy Klaassen put the four-time European champions in pole position to make the semi-final of a European competition for the first time in 20 years following their 2-0 victory over a lacklustre Schalke 04 in the first leg of their quarter-final tie at the Amsterdam ArenA on Thursday evening.
Despite the inclusion of Donny van de Beek at the expense of the injured Lasse Schone meaning that the home side’s starting line-up had an average age of just 23, Peter Bosz’s men – who came into this quarter final tie having won nineteen of their last twenty home games in all competitions, scarcely missed a beat in what was, ultimately, one of the best performances from an Ajax side on the European stage in many years.
Following a tentative opening, the game sprang to life in the 12th minute when Daniel Caligiuri’s headed clearance from a Klaassen cross from the left only found its way to van de Beek whose volley from just outside the area was gathered by Schalke ‘keeper, Ralf Fahrmann at the second attempt.
The hosts continued to ramp up the pressure thereafter and were given the opportunity to take the lead just ten minutes later when Hakim Ziyech set a break in motion with a well weighted diagonal which found Amin Younes with time and space on the left to cut inside Thilo Kehrer – whom he would give a torrid evening, before being tripped by Alessandro Schopf inside the visitor’s area leaving Russian official, Sergey Karasev little option but to point to the spot from which Dutch international, Klaassen made no mistake – sending Fahrmann the wrong way to put the hosts into the ascendancy in the 23rd minute.
The home side – who won this competition under its previous guise as the UEFA Cup in 1992, could have doubled their advantage just after the half hour mark but instead saw Matija Nastasic’s attempted clearance rattle Fahrmann’s crossbar after the centre half had been forced to scramble under the attentions of Davinson Sanchez who had remained in the box after a Ziyech corner from the left had only been partially cleared by the Schalke rear guard before being put back into the mixer from the opposite flank by van de Beek.
Having gone in at the break a goal-to-the-good, the home side re-emerged for the second half in determined mood and deservedly doubled their advantage seven minutes after the restart – Chelsea loanee, Bertrand Traore picking out Justin Kluivert with a measured diagonal ball from just inside the opposition’s half before the 17-year-old then cut in from the right and beat Caligiuri to tee up Klaassen with a nice square ball that found Ajax’s influential skipper with time and space on the edge of the box to half volley the home side’s second of the evening past an exposed Fahrmann in the Schalke net.
From that moment on the chances came thick and fast as Schalke – who came into the tie having posted just three wins in their last thirteen outings in all competitions, were overrun in all areas of the field by their rampant hosts.
Just two minutes later it could have been three when Traore drew a smart save from Fahrmann having been fed by Younes after the diminutive German had intercepted an errant ball from Dennis Aogo on half way before the former Borussia Monchengladbach man then drew a save of his own from Fahrmann three minutes later following a period of concerted pressure before Traore again went close – drawing another stop from Fahrmann a minute later as the hosts threatened to run riot with their visitors seemingly on the ropes.
In the end, Fahrmann proved to be the difference between remaining in the tie and being left a mountain to climb in the return leg in Gelsenkirchen for Markus Weinzierl’s beleaguered troops – the goalkeeper coming to his side’s aid twice in quick succession 23 minutes from time by first denying compatriot, Younes after the 23-year-old had been slipped in by Traore before the Burkinabé forward was then also repelled by the reflexes of Fahrmann – whose back-line melted away before his very eyes, as the man on loan from Stamford Bridge cut between the ineffectual challenges of both Kehrer and Nastasic before getting his shot away.
There was a brief reprieve for the visitors when the stadium rose-as-one to give former Ajax marksman, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar a heroes’ reception when the Dutch international was introduced to proceedings – replacing Schopf, nineteen minutes from time.
The onslaught continued thereafter – the home side going even closer to adding a third fourteen minutes from the end when, having turned a Younes effort around his near post, Fahrmann then had his crossbar rattled for a second time as van de Beek went close from the edge of the area from Ziyech’s resultant corner.
Peter Bosz will hope his side don’t live to regret the plethora of chances they squandered during a dominant second half performance, the last of which fell to Nick Viergever – Fahrmann once more on his toes to deny a point blank header from the Ajax left back after the 27-year-old evaded his marker to connect with another Ziyech corner from the left eleven minutes from time.
Despite putting in a woeful performance, Schalke – currently languishing in a disappointing tenth position in the Bundesliga standings, who themselves tasted success in this competition twenty years ago, managed to weather the home side’s attacking storm and despite creating nothing of note did give themselves a chance of turning the tie around in the 2nd leg at the Veltins Arena next Thursday evening by escaping with just a two-goal deficit to overcome in front of their own supporters.
Man of the Match: Amin Younes
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