It was an artful coup de grâce. Kasper Dolberg, the baby-faced Ajax striker of a pale but suave Scandinavian complexion, dinked the ball over Olympique Lyon goalkeeper Anthony Lopes – a strike that was both arrogant and self-assured.
In just a matter of seconds, Ajax traversed the entire length of the field, profited from the blurred communication lines in the French side's back line, exploited the inexplicable acres of space and scored with a calm and composed finish from Dolberg.
That blistering 39th-minute counterattack was the result of Ajax’s relentless game plan. They attacked and attacked and were not going to alter that approach. Ajax were in control and superior to their opponents, who were left huffing and puffing. Their football was pure and a reminder of the frightening potency they had shown in the superlative first leg.
That 4-1 victory was a tribute to the Johan Cruyff era, with a flexible 4-3-3 formation that blended contemporary athleticism with the high press, all buttressed by the old adage that attack is the most effective form of defence. Ajax played an upgraded version of Total Football – a tactical theory in which any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in a team.
The average age of the Ajax team fielded against Lyon was 21 years and eight months. The euphoria in the side was dangerous as Ajax harked back to their last European Cup final in 1995, when Louis Van Gaal’s brilliant and brazen boys had defeated AC Milan. But recent history suggested that Lyon still had a fair chance to overturn the deficit.
This season, coach Bruno Genesio's side has defeated a formidable AS Roma 4-2 and AZ Alkmaar 7-1 at home in the Europa League – results that proved the French club have a knack for scoring. Alexandre Lacazette’s return reinforced Lyon’s goalscoring prowess.
At the same time, Lyon had often been whimsical this season, oscillating between the brilliant and the mediocre. At times potent, at times vulnerable. In the first half against Ajax, they were indeed impuissant. Inside the first 30 minutes, Dolberg, Amin Younes and Hakim Ziyech weren’t clinical enough to convert good chances. Lyon mustered little. Even when Ajax defended, they went forward. That forward pressing is quintessential to Ajax coach Peter Bosz’s philosophy.
But in the dying minutes of the first half, the Dutch self-assurance and skill set went up in smoke, gone was the footballing enlightenment. Matthijs de Ligt, with the tenderness of his years a mainstay in the Ajax defence and an ingrained part of the club’s project, was prone to inept defending with his knee charging towards Lacazette. The contact was unmistaken and the striker converted the penalty. For De Ligt, it was a painful déjà vu of a torrid World Cup qualifying night with the ‘Oranje’ in the Bulgarian capital Sofia.
Moments later, Lacazette tapped in a cross from Nabil Fekir after Nick Viergever had given away possession in the box. Those glitches were the immaturity and excesses of youth. The Dutch lacked well-seasoned veterans and in a near perfect half, they squandered a valuable lead all too laxly.
Lyon were galvanised, with the European revival and continental renaissance of Ajax questioned. Perhaps the Dutch prodigies were simply cocky in feeling superior to France’s number four club? Perhaps the idea of perpetual movement – every player attacks, every player defends, everyone is interchangeable – was misguided idealism from a club that had remained on the periphery of European football for too long.
This was, after all, an XI comprising youngsters, who all together cost a good €20 million – or roughly the equivalent of Paul Pogba’s leg in the Premier League. They should have killed the game before the break, but nonchalance is part of their charm.
After the interval, Ajax’s Rembrandtesque football, with painted patterns and incessant impetus, eviscerated. Their problems were self-inflicted and a rejuvenated Lyon sensed that there was still a path to Stockholm. Dolberg’s goal needn’t end their European campaign.
In a frantic second half, with Rachid Ghezzal scoring an 81st-minute header and Viergever getting sent off minutes later, Ajax offered a different quality: heroism. They were disjointed but Herculean in their attitude during the match’s most delicate moments. Bosz’s boyish team was out on its feet. Bertrand Traore struggled to track back as the energy had been sapped from his legs by the overwhelming Lyon dominance.
A fourth French goal, however, didn’t materialise. With Ajax’s progression to the final of the Europa League, Dutch football is modish and admired again. Bosz’s Ajax has gone a long way in restoring the proud heritage of Cruyff’s club.
Updated Date: May 12, 2017 10:57 AM