PAOK denied victory by battling Ajax
UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE - 3rd QUALIFYING ROUND (LEG 1)
PAOK produced an impressive performance on Tuesday night but fell short of causing an upset against last season’s semi-finalists Ajax as the first leg of their UEFA Champions League third qualifying round tie ended in an entertaining 2-2 draw.
After Hakim Ziyech’s early free-kick opener for Ajax, goals from Chuba Akpom and Leo Matos gave the Thessaloniki club, dubbed ‘The Invincibles’ after going unbeaten domestically all season last term, the advantage at half-time in front of a sold-out Toumba Stadium.
In what was PAOK’s first competitive match under new Portuguese coach Abel Ferreira, the home side showed that they are not just here to make up the numbers in European competition, but they conceded early in the second half when Fernando Varela’s attempted clearance cannoned off Klass-Jan Huntelaar to level the match.
PAOK must now go to the Johan Cruijff ArenA in Amsterdam next Tuesday and try to pull off an unlikely shock to make the play-offs, where the winners of the tie will meet APOEL or Qarabağ if they progress. The losers of the tie will enter the UEFA Europa League play-offs.
PAOK came into this crucial match focused on gaining revenge against Ajax having lost against the Dutch masters in the Champions League qualifiers in both 2010 and 2016, as well as their last four UEFA home games.
Following last season’s elimination at the final hurdle in the Champions League playoff round against Benfica, the Thessaloniki club were eager to make up for that disappointment and finally take another step further to finally qualifying for the coveted group stages.
Even if the omens were against PAOK, the home side began with plenty of positivity, chasing down Ajax as they tried to control the early possession. For all their enthusiasm, PAOK were undone by a set-piece after 10 minutes.
After giving away a free-kick in a dangerous position down the right flank, Ziyech curled oer a free-kick which seemed to skim the head of Dimitris Gianoulis on it’s way past a poorly positioned PAOK goalkeeper Alexandros Paschalakis into the net.
That was a huge blow for the hosts, but to their credit they set about trying to undo that damage in the best way possible, by pushing players forward at every opportunity.
And that policy paid dividends after 32 minutes in the form of an equalising goal, which came from the best move of the match up to that point. Dutch midfielder Diego Biseswar picked up possession in midfield, and instantly fed the overlapping full-back Giannoulis down the right. His low cross was met perfectly by Akpom, who side-footed emphatically past Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana.
That strike breathed new confidence into the PAOK players, as well as their fans, who became ever noisier as they urged their team forward for another goal.
And, astonishingly, that goal came just seven minutes later. This time it was Ajax’s turn to give away a free-kick in a dangerous position as Nicolas Tagliafico halted Leo Jaba’s run illegally.
Biseswar stepped up to float over an inch-perfect cross for the arriving Leo Matos to head powerfully past Onana and send PAOK’s fans into dreamland.
Things could have got even better for PAOK before half-time when another stylishly-constructed move down the left ended with Jaba crossing for Dimitris Pelkas, but the PAOK skipper scuffed his effort wastefully wide from just 10 yards out.
Going into the dressing rooms at 2-1 up, PAOK would have expected a reaction from Ajax, and it came after 57 minutes.
Ajax worked the ball well down the right flank and Donny van de Beek found himself with enough space to send a low center into the box. Varela got the ball first but his poor attempted clearance struck Huntelaar and the ball flew past Paschalakis.
The visitors then more or less dominated possession for the remainder of the half and continually frustrated PAOK’s efforts to try and go in search of a winner. The more the half wore on the more fatigued the hosts’ looked and they never looked like nicking what would have been a famous win.
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
Ajax: 24 Onana (GK), 2 Schuurs, 3 Veltman, 6 Van de Beek, 10 Tadić ©, 12 Mazraoui, 17 Blind, 21 Martinez, 22 Ziyech, 25 Dolberg, 31 Tagliafico
HIGHLIGHTS: PAOK - AJAX