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UEFA Champions League: AFC Ajax 2-1 FC Barcelona: Match Review

A review of Barcelona's 2-1 defeat at the hands of Ajax in the UEFA Champions League

Dean Mouhtaropoulos

Ajax handed Gerardo Martino's Barcelona its first official loss of the season. Ajax came out flying and goals by Thulani Serero and Danny Hoesen in the first half proved to be more than Barcelona could make up for. From a penalty kick in the second half Xavi was able to halve the deficit, but that proved to be all that Barcelona could muster.

AFC Ajax

FC Barcelona




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With the injury bug continuing its way through the Barcelona club, especially at the full-back position, coach Tata Martino had to experiment a bit in this game. Carles Puyol therefore made a rare appearance at right-back, with the only healthy first team full-back, Martin Montoya, starting on the other side of the defensive line. The rest of the starting XI was without major surprises, though Tata opted to give Sergio Busquets some rest and started Alex Song at defensive midfielder.

Ajax, in desperate need of a good result, started the game very aggressively, with good pressure all over the pitch. Barcelona were forced to defend deep in the opening minutes, but the makeshift back four made some good blocks and tackles to prevent any good chances by the home side.

But the solid defensive work stopped in the 11th minute when Ajax's attacking play was nearly rewarded as Lasse Schöne found Viktor Fischer with a good cross on the left side of the penalty area, but the Danish forward saw his effort stopped by Pinto. Barça's first chance came soon after when, first, Neymar and then Cesc Fabregas had a crack on goal, but both were stopped by good plays by the defense.

Ajax were clearly the hungrier team in the first half, beating Barcelona to most loose balls. That coupled with the fact that their passing success was also higher than the Catalans' meant that Ajax clearly led the possession battle after 18 minutes, with 58% to 42%.

That whole combination spelled trouble for Barcelona, and in the 19th minute the Dutch side was finally rewarded for their excellent play. Ricardo van Rhijn brought the play to Barcelona on Ajax's right side, and with enough space to send in a cross he brilliantly found Serero wide open in the middle. From there the South Africa international made no mistake and fired inside the near post to put Ajax in front.

Ajax didn't pull back one bit once they took the lead, pressuring Barcelona also in Pinto's penalty box. That caused a lot of problems to not only Pinto, but the defensive line as well as they struggled to accurately pass the ball.

With so many Ajax players committed to asserting pressure high up the pitch Barcelona had chances to get on the board through counter-attacks. Especially Neymar was dangerous on the break, but the center back duo of Joël Veltman and Niklas Moisander made perfect tackle after perfect tackle. Something Pedro also found out when he tried to make his way through the heart of the defense.

On the other side, Barcelona's defense was far from sure-footed. Puyol at times looked uncomfortable on the right side while both Gerard Pique, who also earned a yellow card for a clumsy tackle, and Javier Mascherano struggled with Ajax's speed. Montoya wasn't perfect on the left side, but with the way the other three were playing he was Barcelona's best defender, by some margin.

Former Barcelona player and current Ajax manager, Frank de Boer, was in the 35th minute forced to make his first substitution. Nicolai Boilesen, who caused a lot of problems to Puyol and Pique, was forced to come off. He was replaced by Christian Poulsen.

Toward the end of the half it appeared as if Ajax took the foot of the gas a little bit, but not enough to allow Barcelona to assert their game. However, even though the tempo of the game dropped Ajax was able to double their lead. Fisher's initial long range effort was well saved by Pinto, but the rebound wasn't cleared by Pique, who made a perfect example of how not to play defense. If he showed some desire he would've easily beat Hoesen to the ball, and all he needed to do was kick it out of play. But Pique decided to rather turn himself around and appeal for offside, even though it wasn't even close, which allowed Hoesen to get to the ball. After a few lucky bounces the ball came back to the young Dutchman who calmly put it into the back of the net.

Mercifully Ajax didn't tack on to the lead before the halftime whistle, to leave Barcelona with at least a glimmer of hope going into the second. It was as good a half anybody has played against Barcelona since Pep Guardiola took over as Ajax dominated Barcelona all over the pitch.

Ajax exposed numerous Barça weaknesses in the first half, but with the bench full of inexperienced players, Martino didn't make any changes during the break. Regardless, Barcelona started the half with a lot more positivity, but more importantly caught a huge break in the 48th minute. Van Rhijn played an errant back pass to Veltman that was intercepted by Neymar. Out of options, Veltman dove into the tackle on the very edge of the box, missed the ball but caught the speedy Brazilian. Being the last man the defender was showed a straight red card and Barcelona won a penalty that was calmly converted by Xavi.

With his backline now down a man de Boer was forced to make another substitution, bringing in Stefano Denswil to shore up the defense in place of a forward, Schöne. Neymar continued to cause the most problems to Ajax's now much changed defense. He also earned himself a yellow card when his bicycle kick caught an Ajax player up high. The Brazilian could've also tied the game as early as in the 57th minute, but his attempted lob was brilliantly tipped over the crossbar by Jasper Cillessen.

Playing with the man advantage Barcelona took full control of the game, but with Ajax now more committed to defending Barça found it difficult to make it into the danger areas. Because Ajax were now rarely controlling the ball Martino felt it was time to play with two natural full-backs, as Patric made his first team debut in the 69th minute when he replaced Puyol.

Five minutes later Sergi Roberto was brought on the pitch. Roberto took the place of Xavi who after he missed the last game through injury wasn't physically ready to play the full 90 minutes. But neither substitution brought Barcelona the edge in attack where Ajax fairly easily held Barcelona at bay with good positioning.

With 8 minutes remaining in regulation Martino made a daring substitution, taking Cesc off the pitch and replacing him with highly touted prospect, Adama Traore, hoping that the youngster's explosiveness could be the deciding factor.

But Ajax's defense survived the Catalan onslaught that only had 10 corner kicks to show for. While Barcelona did play an excellent second half, albeit with a man advantage, Ajax, as much as it pains me to say this, deserved to win the game. With their perfect first half coupled with excellent defending in the second half it would've been unfair if they only picked up a point.

With the loss Barcelona now can't afford to "wing it" in the last group stage game against Celtic as a first place finish hasn't yet been guaranteed. Barcelona still control their destiny as only one point is needed (a loss or draw by Milan in their game against Ajax would also be enough), but Tata surely won't field a team full of depth and B team players on 11 December.

Barcelona have another difficult away game coming up, with a trip to San Mames in the cards on Sunday, where they will try to rebound from their first loss of the year. The opponent will be Athletic Bilbao who currently occupy fifth place on the La Liga table. The Catalans will have to produce a much better showing than they did against Ajax in the first half if they want to continue their La Liga campaign without a loss.

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