Football: Ajax roll back the years to put one foot in Europa League final

Ajax forward Kasper Dolberg scoring his team's second goal against Lyon in the Europa League semi-final first leg. Both teams combined to register 38 shots, of which 24 were on target, in an end-to-end game.
Ajax forward Kasper Dolberg scoring his team's second goal against Lyon in the Europa League semi-final first leg. Both teams combined to register 38 shots, of which 24 were on target, in an end-to-end game.PHOTO: REUTERS

AMSTERDAM • Ajax Amsterdam produced a performance worthy of the club's illustrious past when they crushed Lyon 4-1 on Wednesday to move to the brink of their first European final since 1996.

Bertrand Traore led the way with two goals in an enthralling, end-to-end Europa League semi-final first leg in which the Dutch side fielded a starting line-up with an average age of under 22.

Dane Kasper Dolberg, 19, and German Amin Younes, 23, also netted for Ajax while Mathieu Valbuena scored for the visitors who could easily have two or three more goals.

Four-time European champions Ajax were once one of Europe's biggest clubs but are no longer able to compete financially with teams from England, Spain and Germany.

Their last European final appearance was in the Champions League in 1996 when they lost to Juventus on penalties.

In a raucous atmosphere on Wednesday, Lyon had the best of the opening 20 minutes, pressing Ajax high up the pitch and making it difficult for the hosts to get out of their own half.

But the game turned completely after Ajax went ahead against the run of play in the 25th minute, Traore getting a glancing header to Hakim Ziyech's inswinging free kick to guide the ball past goalkeeper Anthony Lopes.

That lead was doubled on 34 minutes when Dolberg darted between a static defence to get to Traore's header and lash home his fifth Europa League goal of the season.

Younes added a third four minutes after the break by converting the impressive Ziyech's pass with a deflected shot which crept past Lopes and over the line.

Valbuena struck precisely past Andre Onana from 15 metres on 66 minutes to reduce the margin before Traore, the 21-year-old Burkina Faso international on loan from Chelsea, converted another fantastic Ziyech cross on 71 minutes for Ajax's fourth goal.

"We played very well. If we keep playing like this, we can beat anyone 4-1 or even more," Onana told Ajax TV. "We worked together, we defended together, we attacked together. The chance (of reaching the final) is 50-50. What we have to do is play like we did."

The defeat leaves the French Ligue 1 side with a mountain to climb at Parc Olympique Lyonnais next week in order to face either Celta Vigo or Manchester United in Stockholm.

"We must believe," Lyon manager Bruno Genesio was quoted as saying on L'Equipe. "We must digest this defeat. It must be believed that the feat is still possible.

"It's a big disappointment. We came here with great ambition and a lot of hope. But there is also the desire to refocus for the return match."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 05, 2017, with the headline 'Ajax roll back the years to put one foot in Europa League final'. Print Edition | Subscribe