Whether Ajax wins the Europa League final against Manchester United on May 24 or not, this is now as good as it will get for the proud Dutch club.
Ajax may be a four-time Champions League winner, a Cup Winners’ Cup winner and already a Europa League winner to go with two European Super Cups and two Intercontinental Cups in its trophy case. But just competing for Europe’s second-tier tournament is the best it can hope for.
When they say the Europa League doesn’t matter, tell it to the clubs from outside the big five leagues of Spain, England, Germany, Italy and France. Their middling TV contracts and limited appeal abroad simply don’t allow for the sort of revenue generation it takes to hang in the Champions League. Some of the bigger clubs in other leagues will make the big tournament fairly regularly, but they won’t be competitive. Or at least not consistently.
The Europa League then, has become two different things to two types of clubs. It’s either a mechanism for big clubs living through bad seasons, or second-class teams from the big leagues, to land an automatic berth for next season’s Champions League. That’s the category Ajax’s fellow finalists Manchester United is in this year. Or the Europa League represents an opportunity to relive former glory, to harken back to a time when anybody could win in Europe, provided that they played well enough.
After Ajax limited its loss to Olympique Lyon to 3-1 on Thursday, in spite of taking the first lead, it made it to its first European final since 1996 thanks to its overwhelming 4-1 victory in the first leg, when Ajax could have won by even more. Some 21 years ago, Ajax reached the Champions League final for the second year in a row with a squad barely old enough to drive — losing to Juventus on penalties.
But that team was bought apart by richer clubs and ravaged by the new Bosman Ruling and the free agency it imposed on the game. In the two decades since, there have been plenty of times where even the most optimistic fans doubted that Ajax could even get to this point, the title game of Europe’s big consolation prize. Yet here it is.
Ajax made a jittery start and a nervy finish to the first half. Lyon’s star striker Alex Lacazette, back from an injury, delivered an early warning shot. But Ajax seemed to gather itself and shook off the nerves after the opening 10 minutes and began forging chances. Teenage prodigy Kasper Dolberg had some looks. As did his teammates.
And before the half hour, Ajax got a precious away goal that would, as it turned out, win the thing for them. On almost exactly 27 minutes, Lyon overcommitted forward and then didn’t clear a long ball well. Amin Younes sent Dolberg through, and his subtle little chip over Anthony Lopes skittered just out of the reach of the sliding Rafael and trickled over the line. Lyon now needed four goals and was clearly the inferior team.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) May 11, 2017
The Amsterdammers seemed firmly in control as the halftime whistle loomed. Yet its youthful inexperience reared its acne-pocked face. During a big scramble in the box, 17-year-old defender Matthijs de Ligt brought down Lacazette for no good reason. The striker converted his own penalty in the 45th minute.
And then, in injury time, Nick Viergever whiffed on the clearance in his own box and then allowed Nabil Fekir to reach the back line and cut a ball across that was bundled home by Lacazette. Two more goals and this tie would be completely squared up.
Ajax was going to be doing this thing the hard way, just as it had in every other knockout round in this tournament thus far. In the round of 32, it had only beaten Legia Warsaw 1-0 on aggregate. In the round of 16, Ajax had to overcome a 2-1 first-leg loss against FC Copenhagen with a 2-0 win at home. In the quarters, Ajax gave away the 2-0 lead from a brilliant first leg at home over Schalke and went behind in extra time before summoning two late goals.
After the break, it was initially one-way traffic towards the Ajax goal, before the visitors again regrouped themselves. But Fekir should probably have scored in the 65th minute, when he was in one-on-one with Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana but shanked his shot wide. Onana then made a massive save on Maciej Rybus as Lyon’s pressure turned into an all-out assault and Ajax settled for defending and taking yellow cards for breaking up attacks.
For a long stretch, Ajax only threatened when Donny van de Beek curled a shot onto the junction of the upright from outside the box.
And when Lyon came within a goal in the 81st minute, it felt sort of inevitable. After a patient buildup, Rachid Ghezzal’s header deflected off Viergever and past Onana to make it 3-1.
Want drama? Switch over to FS2! Lyon need just one more goal to force extra time.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) May 11, 2017
Three minutes later, things got even nervier for Ajax. A poor challenge from Viergever on Fekir got him his second yellow and sent off. Maxwel Cornet got the best chance at the equalizer when he found himself all alone at the far post, but he rolled his finish just wide of the other upright.
A pulsating end-to-end finish saw both teams get close but neither scored. An agonizing second at a time, Ajax managed to hoof away enough balls and to tick away enough nerve-wracking beats by holding it upfield to run out the clock.
Lyon, in truth, ran out of time. Another goal seemed inevitable. The referee’s final whistle simply ended the game before it could happen. And so the French club, which has been frustrated in its own pursuit of European success, came up short.
Ajax is a European finalist again. Maybe for the last time ever. Maybe not. But either way, the club and its supporters will appreciate this.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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