Ajax were surely the more relaxed of the sides heading into this week’s Europa League semifinal second-leg match after their dominant 4-1 win against Lyon in the first leg.
But nothing can be taken for granted against a strong attacking team like Lyon, who are known for scoring goals for fun. With the return of Lyon’s top goal scorer Alexandre Lacazette from injury, the club were hoping that they could salvage a miraculous comeback against Ajax and stamp their ticket to the final.
The major sources of weakness to be exploited against this Ajax side were their poor away form and a lack of experience. This is an incredibly young side that needed to perform on the big stage to maintain their lead over Lyon. Ajax have also failed to win a single knockout match away from home in the Europa League, so Lyon looked to take advantage of a favourable opportunity.
Lyon lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation that allowed them to advance the ball quickly up the field in search of an early goal. Meanwhile, Ajax utilized a 4-3-3 formation that made it easier to pressure Lyon out wide, to win the ball back quickly and counterattack directly with long balls and speedy wingers.
A Nervy Start
The match started out with Ajax defending valiantly against an onslaught of Lyon attacks. Lyon attempted to move the ball quickly by advancing the ball out wide with their midfielders before working the ball into the box for their forwards. They were reluctant to cross, demonstrating a desire to create quality chances quickly to turn the tie in their favour.
Ajax retaliated with long balls to their speedy wingers to relieve pressure and attempt to counter. Bertrand Traore and Amin Younes pushed forward with the ball, demonstrating excellent hold-up play and dribbling skills to formulate attacks.
Ajax also resorted to fouling Lyon players to slow down their progression in the midfield, risking disciplinary trouble to regain control of the match. While Lyon managed to get shots on target early on from the resulting free kicks, Mathieu Valbuena never seemed to be too threatening from dead ball situations. If the ball ever got too close to the Ajax goal, players would pack the box to force Lyon out wide and limit their chances.
After Lyon’s initial spell of possession, Ajax managed to retaliate with a decent period of dangerous looking attacks. As they got more comfortable in possession, Ajax got better at pressing high in the final third to keep Lyon pinned back and force errors leading to high-quality chances. This also had the added effect of slowing down the match in Ajax’s favor and limiting Lyon’s influence.
During this period, Younes led most of the Ajax attacks, providing a good outlet on the left for counters. Lyon seemed to be frustrated with how much of the ball Ajax were seeing when Jérémy Morel and Corentin Tolisso were both booked for late challenges within a minute of each other. Lyon were also nullified by Ajax’s pressing out wide, which led to rushed mistakes that prevented Lyon from getting the ball to their forwards.
To combat Ajax’s resurgence, Lyon moved their backline to the halfway line to keep Ajax contained in their defensive half. While this did lead to better chances, Lyon were almost punished for it immediately with Ajax creating more deadly counter attacks.
Ajax’s only goal of the match eventually came from the exploitation of the space Lyon left at the back. After a corner, Andre Onana took his goal kick quickly to release the counter. The long ball caught the backline off-guard, as two defenders went for the same header which fell in the path of Younes. He was then able to send a through ball towards the unmarked run of Kasper Dolberg. Dolberg made no mistake in front of goal, coolly chipping the ball over the onrushing goalkeeper and allowing it to roll into the far corner.
With that goal, a comeback seemed truly impossible for Lyon, who needed to score 4 goals just to force extra time. They looked deflated and exhausted from their first 10 minutes of fruitless possession. Ajax continued to attack on the counter while defending solidly to prevent Lyon from incorporating Lacazette in their attacks.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Lyon managed to pull one back. A hopeful pass into the box towards Lacazette prompted a rash challenge from Matthijs de Ligt who gave away the penalty one minute from halftime. Lacazette made no mistake from the spot, burying the penalty into the bottom left corner and sending the goalkeeper the wrong way.
The goal breathed life into Lyon as they pushed harder than ever at the end of the half. Their work was rewarded yet again when a poor Ajax clearance fell in Fekir’s path. He squared the ball across the goal towards Lacazette, who peeled off the defender at the back post to poke the ball into the open net from close range.
The Comeback Dream is Alive
The second half started with the same high-energy approach from Lyon, but Ajax did well to respond with dangerous attacks of their own. This led to an end-to-end match for the first 15 minutes of the half. The first part of the half also saw the yellow cards come out for both sides, putting the match on edge.
To further calm things down, Peter Bosz made two subs for Ajax to inject energy into the midfield. Tete and van de Beek both made quick impacts on the match, with the latter hitting the crossbar with a teed up shot from outside the box following a corner.
Lyon looked quite shaky at the back during this period, so Bruno Genesio responded by subbing in Rybus and Ghezzal to inject energy on the left-hand side. 4 minutes later, Ghezzal managed to score an electrifying third goal for Lyon following some delightful one-touch build-up and an enticing cross to the back post. An unmarked Ghezzal powered his header down into the goal, leaving little for Onana to do.
In response, Ajax brought on Kluivert for Younes and continued to sit deep and exploit Lyon’s space at the back with long balls. Meanwhile, Lyon pushed hard in the last 10 minutes for the fourth goal by using short passes to unlock Ajax’s tough defense. Crosses were also utilized once more space opened up in the Ajax box.
Tensions boiled over when Viergever rushed into a late challenge at the edge of the box, forcing the referee to show him his second yellow card of the night. For the second time, Ajax had to play with 10 men in a second-leg knockout match.
For the last 5 minutes of the match, Lyon attacked relentlessly to push for the last goal they needed while Ajax tried desperately to hang on to their slim lead. Davidson Sanchez shined as the Ajax penalty area was under siege, coming up big with countless interceptions and clearances.
Despite the seemingly endless crosses fired into the Ajax area, Lyon’s night could be summed up best by Cornet’s cross in the dying minutes that was blasted into the stands. It was just not meant to be for the French side. Ajax fought bravely to maintain their 5-4 aggregate score, which was more than good enough to see them to the final.
Looking Towards the Final
Ajax certainly look like they are ready to bring a strong showing to the final of the Europa League, where they will face Manchester United. This young Dutch team have demonstrated exhilarating attacking performances coupled with the resolve to defend against some of the top teams in Europe. They have already defended their right to have a place in the final, now they must fight to win it all.