Football Features

From Ajax’s new CB pair to VAR controversy: Five things learned from the Champions League qualifiers

By Steve Jennings

Published: 22:07, 20 August 2019

It was an understandably cautious evening across Europe as six sides took part in their final Champions League qualifiers. 

Last season’s semi-finalists Ajax seem determined to make their journey to the group stages as difficult as possible this year. They played out a goalless draw with Apoel Nicosia in Cyprus.

Meanwhile, Slavia Prague edged out CFR Cluj with a 1-0 victory in Romania. Club Brugge also scored what could be a vital away goal as they won 1-0 against Austrian side Linz ASK.

Here are five things you might have missed on a nervy night in the Champions League play-off rounds.

1. Masopust volley hands Slavia Prague an advantage

A brilliantly worked goal gave Slavia Prague an invaluable lead in their clash with Cluj, an advantage they will take back to the Czech Republic

It came in the 28th minute when Nicola Stanciu floated a corner to the edge of the box. Lukas Masopust was waiting but didn’t exactly look set to shoot, which made what happened next all the more gloriously surprising.

Arms down by his side, Masopust unleashed a dipping volley with an effortlessness Dimitar Berbatov would be proud of. The goalkeeper was unsighted and ended up diving for it slightly late, but that took nothing away from the accuracy and flair of the strike.

It was the kind of goal that deserves to win a Champions League qualifier, and it might end up doing exactly that.

2. LASK made to rue VAR controversy

The Premier League has seen its fair share of VAR controversy in the first couple of weeks of the new season, and the rest of Europe has been no different. Linz ASK, or just LASK, were made to rue a contentious referee call that probably should have been overturned by the VAR.

First, Gernot Trauner was penalised for a questionable foul on Brugge forward David Okereke and the referee pointed to the spot. It was perhaps a little clumsy but there was minimal contact – Trauner was unfortunate to have the call go against him.

More controversy ensued. Replays appeared to show Okereke was narrowly offside when he ran through to win the penalty. The VAR didn’t intervene, possibly because the focus was on the foul rather than the build-up.

LASK will certainly feel hard done by if they are eliminated by a one-goal margin.

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3. Mazraoui maims Matic and sees red for Ajax

Ajax’s meeting with Apoel wasn’t the friendliest of contests, particularly on the part of the visitors. Six Ajax players were booked before Noussair Mazraoui received a second yellow card with ten minutes to go for a silly foul on Uros Matic, the younger brother of Manchester United’s Nemanja Matic.

If felt like the red card had been coming. Apoel had begun to overrun Ajax in midfield and the Dutch champions were struggling to maintain their fitness, stretching for tackles to prevent the hosts from starting counter attacks.

In the last round of qualifiers, Erik ten Hag’s side scraped past PAOK Salonika with a 5-4 aggregate win. If this first leg is anything to go by, Ajax are set to go through by a narrow scoreline once again – if they go through at all.

Nothing can be taken for granted in the second leg, with Apoel surely gaining confidence from their ability to rile Ajax and force them into needless fouls.

4. Onana thwarts Apoel more than once

Ajax started the better of the two sides in Cyprus, creating some early half-chances but failing to fashion any real opportunities to take a decent advantage into the reverse fixture.

Their inability to really get going eventually allowed Apoel to take the initiative, and the hosts ended up having the better of the chances to go ahead.

Ajax goalkeeper Andrea Onana, who was so often excellent on the journey to the semi-finals last season, had to be on top of his game here and made three solid saves to keep Apoel at bay. Without Onana, Ajax would have been in big trouble.

Apoel will be kicking themselves for failing to take the lead, especially after Ten Hag’s side went down to 10 men in the 80th minute. In contrast, Ajax will be thankful to Onana for helping them leave Cyprus relatively unscathed.

5. Mixed results for Ajax’s new centre-back partnership

A key factor in Ajax’s miraculous Champions League campaign last season was the centre-back partnership of Matthijs de Ligt and Daley Blind, which is obviously no longer a possibility.

De Ligt has made his inevitable switch to one of Europe’s biggest clubs, Juventus, while Lasse Schone’s move to Genoa means Daley Blind has been moved into central midfield for now.

As a result, Ajax started with Joel Veltman – who mostly played at right-back last term– and Lisandro Martinez in the heart of the defence. Although the duo helped to keep a clean sheet, they looked shaky at times and Apoel were able to test Onana more than Ten Hag would have liked.

Whether Ten Hag plans to experiment with different centre-back partnerships remains to be seen. A Veltman-Martinez pairing certainly has potential, but this was a mixed audition.

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