Europa League Group G
Amsterdam ArenA, Amsterdam
Match Rating: 4
The Amsterdam ArenA is conveniently located adjacent to the Amsterdam Bijlmer Arena train station in the southern suburbs of the city. Located amongst modern buildings housing shops, bars and open spaces with retail vans parked on, there was an excellent atmosphere around the stadium ahead of kick-off. Having collected my ticket at the main reception, I made my way to the turnstiles and inside the stadium which is impressive in terms of its size, design, comfort, facilities, as well as excellent legroom and lines of visions – with unobstructed views from all seats in the two tiers that go all the way around the stadium. However it is fairly typical of modern stadia built across Europe in the last twenty years or so, with no particular Dutch feel to it at all. That said, the seats are attractively coloured, and flags displaying the club’s achievements neatly hang from the roof. Away fans were housed in the top tier in one corner, and they certainly were colourful and noisy this evening. The stadium also features a retractable roof, which was the first to be installed in Europe. From what I could see, no programmes were produced for this game. Plastic flags were left by each seat, and prior to kick off these were waved with gusto along with several club anthems, which made for quite an impressive sight as well as sound.
At the half way stage of the group, this match would be between the two clubs best placed to fill the two berths to progress to the knockout rounds. Ajax had won two and drew the other of their three games, whilst Celta de Vigo had won one and drawn two of their games, and are three and four points ahead of Standard Liège and Panathinaikos respectively. When the two teams met in Spain last month, the game finished 2-2, with Ajax twice taking the lead. In their domestic campaigns, Ajax were in second place in the Eredivisie, three points behind leaders Feyenoord, whilst Celta de Vigo were in ninth place in La Liga.
On a cool but dry evening, Ajax had the better of the first half, although they almost gifted the visitors the lead on 15 minutes, when the Ajax keeper passed the ball straight to Celta’s Theo Bongonda, who took a couple of touches before firing low past the far post, to the keeper’s relief. In the 23rd minute came Ajax's first real chance when Kasper Dolberg took control of a pass into the box, but he fired his shot in the ground which allowed the keeper to make a good save to his top left. On 36 minutes, Hakim Ziyech struck a low shot from outside of the area which went just past the far post on 41 minutes, following a corner, the ball struck Dolberg on the back and forced a good finger tip save from the keeper as the ball headed for the top right hand corner. But within a minute, Dolberg did score to give Ajax the lead. Bertrand Traoré, on loan from Chelsea, slipped the ball through to Dolberg, and his first delicate touch took the ball past a defender by the outer corner of the penalty area, before striking it low inside the keeper’s near post. It was a lead they certainly deserved, finally converting their dominance on the game into a lead, with the visitors rarely looking a threat.
The second half started in much the same way, and Ajax doubled their lead on 66 minutes. Following a good flowing move from their own half, Traoré showed some good footwork to beat a defender before getting to the edge of the six yard box before passing the ball low to the far post, and Ziyech had the simple task of tapping the ball home from a couple of yards at the far post. Ajax seemed to seal the three points four minutes later. Jaire Riedewald won the ball back in his own half before striking forward to pass the ball to Amin Younes, who dribbled the ball from the left wing to the outer corner of the penalty area and along the line to a central position before firing the ball into the bottom right corner via a faint touch from the keeper’s fingertips. The visitors looked a beaten team now, until out of nothing, they pulled a goal back on 79 minutes. Iago Aspas threaded the ball low through a couple of defenders for John Guidetti to run onto, before firing the ball low past the keeper from a slight angle. Celta pulled another goal back four minutes from time, when Aspas showed good footwork to evade a couple of defenders before firing low into the bottom right corner from the edge of the area. Suddenly Celta had the chance of a point to go for, and they nearly grabbed an unlikely equaliser two minutes from time when an Ajax defender failed to cut out a low through ball and Bongonda struck a powerful shot which the keeper saved, but if he had passed to Gudetti who was virtually alone in a more central position, he probably would have scored. Ajax held on for the remainder of the match to claim three points and guarantee progress to the knockout round. It was a win they certainly deserved, dominating for long periods and it was only when Celta brought on Guidetti and Aspas, and after they scored, that they finally looked a threat.