PAOK beaten but unbowed
UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE - 3rd QUALIFYING ROUND (LEG 2)
PAOK waved goodbye to Champions League football at the Johan Cruyff ArenA in Amsterdam on Tuesday after going down to a battling 3-2 defeat against Dutch masters Ajax, but the Thessaloniki club did not go down without an incredible fight.
In the end, Abel Ferreira’s men, who drew 2-2 with their opponents from the Netherlands at the Toumba last week, went out 5-4 on aggregate after another thrilling encounter between the two teams.
PAOK had sprung a surprise by taking a 24th-minute lead through Diego Biseswar’s goal, moving ahead 3-2 on aggregate at that point as the dream of writing history was well and truly on.
But the home side fought back, levelling the match with a penalty from their Serbian skipper Dusan Tadic just two minutes before half-time, with Argentine defender Nicolás Tagliafico then putting Ajax ahead, and Tadic netting another spot-kick with five minutes left.
PAOK’s Dutch maestro Biseswa had the last word thought, pulling a goal back in added time to give Ajax’s players and fans a nervous finish.
Ajax now face a playoff tie with APOEL, while PAOK will drop down to the Europa League playoffs as a place in the Champions League group stage once again evaded the Double-headed Eagle of the North.
Few people gave PAOK a chance of overturning the tie heading into this match, but the visitors made a confident start and stunned the home crowd after 24 minutes. Biseswar shows great composure to beat Andre Onana with a shot from the edge of the penalty area after a Dimitris Pelkas cross was cleared by the home defence.
The visitors’ jubilation was then doubled on the half-hour when goalkeeper Alexandros Paschalakis pulled off a fine save to deny Tadic from the penalty spot after the hosts were awarded the spot-kick when Omar El Kaddouri fouled David Neres.
Ajax kept pushing forward though and they were awarded another penalty after 41 minutes when the ball struck the unfortunate Biseswar’s arm. This time Tadic made no mistake from 12 yards to make it 1-1.
That’s the way it stayed going into half-time, and after the restart both sides continued to probe and attack in what was an exciting match for the neutral.
PAOK continued to look dangerous on the counter-attack, but they shot themselves in the foot after 79th minutes, leaving Tagliafico unmarked at a corner, and the Argentine defender headed past Paschalakis with ease to make it 2-1.
That was a crushing blow for PAOK, but the Thessaloniki club still needed just one goal to send the match into extra time at that point and then came the crucial moment when match referee Craig Pawson awarded Ajax what seemed a harsh penalty decision.
Leo Matos was adjudged to have impeded Tagliafico but replays suggested that English whistler Pawson got the decision wrong. It mattered not as Tadic stepped up to slot home his second penalty of the night to make it 3-1.
There was still time for PAOK to set up a tense finish and Biseswar, who was one of the visitors’ top performers, grabbed a second goal in the third minute of added time with a shot which went through a crowd of bodies and into the net.
But Ajax held on to clinch a hard-earned win against an excellent PAOK team that can be proud of the performance they put in.
Ajax: 24 Onana (GK), 3 Veltman, 6 Van de Beek, 7 Neres, 10 Tadić ©, 12 Mazraoui, 17 Blind, 18 Marin, 21 Martinez, 22 Ziyech, 31 Tagliafico
PAOK: 31 Paschalakis (GK), 3 Léo Matos, 5 Varela, 7 El Kaddouri, 10 Pelkas ©, 15 Crespo, 21, Biseswar, 23 Giannoulis, 24 Esiti, 47 Akpom, 98 Léo Jabá
HIGHLIGHTS: AJAX - PAOK