A crazy night in Amsterdam: Three takeaways from Ajax v FC Bayern
It was a perfect illustration of the footballing cliché, a game of two halves. After a relatively quiet first half, the two teams produced a second 45 minutes packed with drama, chaos and a Thomas Müller kung-fu kick.
FC Bayern came into their final group match needing just a point, and they got it. But it was a topsy-turvy affair that defied belief at times. After an almost perfect performance in the first half, the Bavarian defence wobbled badly at times as they threatened to cave in against an Ajax team that set out to have a good shot at their more experienced and illustrious opponents.
The biggest positive sign was that Bayern did not buckle. A month ago, they might have folded after falling behind. They might have crumbled after Thomas Müller’s dismissal following his spectacular (if completely unintentional) kung-fu kick on Nicolas Tagliafico. Instead, they showed some of those good old-fashioned fighting qualities.
After the 3:3 draw against Fortuna Düsseldorf, coach Niko Kovač had supposedly criticised the players for their complacency, encouraging them to adopt a more “Croatian” mentality. Perhaps this was not as silly as it first sounded.
The match could have been settled far earlier, were it not for an excellent display from Ajax keeper André Onana. Robert Lewandowski could have finished with four goals, and the post-match discussion would have been a lot easier.
The main thing is that Bayern managed to escape with that crucial point, meaning that they have avoided the big guns in the last sixteen.
Compared to a lot of what we have seen since the middle of September, the first half in Amsterdam was pretty much on point. Bayern were patient in attack, and created a lovely opening goal. They had chances to extend their advantage, and could have made their task a whole lot easier. Instead, as in the first match in Munich, the Ajax keeper was right at the top of his game.
Defensively, Bayern were solid in the first half. The younger and faster Ajax players were closed down effectively in midfield, and both Jérôme Boateng and Niklas Süle looked the part in the centre of the defence. Süle in particular was a stabilising presence. But even in the first half, there were wobbles. Little tremors that provided an indication of what was to come.
Pressing hard for the win, the Dutch side threw everything forward after the break. When put under pressure, the cracks started to reappear in the Bavarian defence. The otherwise impressive Süle was guilty of not doing enough to prevent Donny van de Beek from setting up Dušan Tadić for the equaliser, and Boateng’s challenge on Kasper Dolberg to concede a needless penalty was both reckless and boneheaded.
As for the final equalising goal right at the death, it was a catalogue of disasters. Not for the first time this season, Bayern failed to close things out properly. There was more than a whiff of offside about the goal that was eventually credited to Tagliafico, but the players will be kicking themselves for conceding five minutes into added time.
Yes, the game could and should have been locked away earlier. But there is getting around the fact that it will take a lot more work to fix the problems at the back.
Most Bayern fans are in agreement that Kingsley Coman is a very important piece in the Bavarian puzzle. His absence has left the team short of pace, and his introduction in the second half provided much-needed impetus.
The 22-year-old winger has been open and honest about his injury troubles, saying that he would rather retire than contemplate another operation.
After yesterday’s sparkling little cameo, we can only hope that the King can see out this season and beyond. The young Frenchman is perfectly set to be a key component of a new-look Bayern squad, with the Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben era coming to an end.
Veteran Ribéry did not have a bad game, and was a Onana save away from providing a lovely assist for Lewandowski. But with Coman on the pitch, Bayern were able to up the tempo, raise their game, and add that little touch of unpredictability.
Coman’s well-taken goal was a thing of beauty, capping off an energetic comeback from the Bavarians. By right, it should have sealed a memorable victory for Kovač’s men.