AFC Ajax are one win away from returning to the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds, thanks in no small part to a striker they were set to release in the spring.
Greek forward Yannis Anastasiou had never scored, and seldom played, in this competition before Matchday 3. But, preferred to Markus Rosenberg and Nourdin Boukhari, he started against FC Thun and the 32-year-old struck both goals in the 2-0 win. And he had an inkling things would come right.
Anastasiou told uefa.com: "Before the match the coach asked me how I felt, and I said 'excellent'. I had a special feeling, and my team-mates also said: 'Yannis will score.' For about ten months I did not start a match, and then you score two such important goals, that's indescribable."
A fortnight later he put Ajax 2-1 up in Switzerland as they went on to claim a 4-2 victory that left them four points clear of third-placed Thun with two Group B fixtures left. That Anastasiou should emerge as the hero is even more incredible considering he was told he was to be released in March.
Danny Blind's appointment as coach changed that. He decided Anastasiou's experience would be vital for the younger players. "Blind asked me to stay," recalls Anastasiou. "He said: 'You have a good influence on the team, you know everyone, have good contacts with everyone.' I try to have a positive influence on the team if I play or not.
It was a surprise the coach wanted me to stay, it made me happy. That is why I am also very happy to be able to give something back, at training and in matches."
His return to the lineup against Thun was unexpected. "First of all I was surprised I was allowed to start," Anastasiou said. "I started the season as third or fourth-choice striker, and then you know it is going to get tough, but because of injuries and lack of sharpness with other players I got my chance. But I was ready for it."
The former Ethnikos Piraeus FC, OFI Crete FC, RSC Anderlecht and Roda JC player made the most of another opportunity in Berne, where Thun equalised before Ajax's two goals in injury time, "an unbelievable climax" according to Anastasiou. The forward puts the close shave down to the lack of experience in Ajax's youthful team.
"In the decisive moments a younger player often plays with emotion, and not with his mind. And that is the task of the older players like Tomáš [Galásek] and me, and also the coach to make clear that when you want results, you have to keep control, certainly in the [UEFA] Champions League."
Oddly, Ajax have had most trouble in domestic football where they have not scored in five games. "I think that's because there is a lot of pressure on the team when you do not score for a while," Anastasiou said. "Against Heracles [Almelo] and [SC] Heerenveen we should have scored at least twice early in each match. But when that does not happen, the pressure rises further."
Anastasiou himself did not play a full part in those matches, indeed he reverted to the bench against PSV Eindhoven five days after his double against Thun. "Of course that's a pity, but I have learned through experience that the coach decides if you play or not, and then you cannot change anything about it at that moment," he said. "But I try to stay positive and help the team, and to be ready for the moment I will get the chance again."
His upbeat philosophy also applies to his adopted homeland, having moved across from Belgium in 2000 and joined Ajax in February 2004. "I feel good in the Netherlands, and plan to stay here," Anastasiou said. "I speak the language, and want to stay involved in Dutch football. I also started professional coaching classes, although I do not know if I will become a head coach one day.
In Greece the climate may be nicer, but football in the Netherlands is a bit better."
The future can wait, though. All that matters now is seeing off AC Sparta Praha in Amsterdam tonight. "We have a great chance of reaching the second round for the first time in three years," he said. "It is the most important match of this year for us, and I have a good feeling. But in all my experience I have learned that you never know the final result before you hear the final whistle."
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