AFC Ajax coach Ronald Koeman praised his young side after a stirring performance saw them make light of a string of key absentees to claim second spot in UEFA Champions League Group B following a deserved 2-1 defeat of AS Roma at the Amsterdam ArenA.
'Compliment the team'
Suspensions and injuries had robbed Koeman of Cristian Chivu, Tomáš Galasek, Victor Sikora and Rafael van der Vaart, but in their absence it was Koeman's youngsters who made the difference. "We knew it would be very difficult without all the injured players, but it all went well and we never had any real problems with our opponents," Koeman said. "I have to compliment the entire team for this effort."
Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored the first and set up Jari Litmanen for Ajax's second on 66 minutes, but it was the 22-year-old Steven Pienaar whose battling performance in midfield built the foundation for victory. Like Van der Vaart, Pienaar made his professional breakthrough with Ajax, but until now the South African had remained in the shadows. He emerged from them in style, controlling the midfield together with the impressive 18-year-old Nigel de Jong.
Litmanen replaced Ahmed Hossam 'Mido' 12 minutes into the second half and on 66 minutes scored his 22nd goal in Europe's élite club competition to set up the victory. Prior to his goal, Litmanen's ability to hold the ball up disrupted Roma's flow just as they were looking to get back into the match. "
With our advantage I wanted someone in midfield with more control on the ball," Koeman said. "Jari is just such a player."
The defeat was Roma's second in as many Champions League games and leaves Fabio Capello's side bottom of Group B. Having scored just four times in their previous seven matches in the competition, Capello conceded that heads dropped when goalkeeper Francesco Antonioli fluffed a long-range shot to gift Ibrahimovic his eleventh-minute opener. "It was a difficult match for us," Capello said. "Psychologically the early goal changed the game. Ajax played very defensively from that moment and we didn't have the spirit to fight back."
As in the 3-1 defeat against Arsenal FC a fortnight ago, Capello opted to partner Antonio Cassano with Francesco Totti up front, but the pair failed to click on a night when Gabriel Batistuta's late goal aside, Roma created few chances.
'Advantage of pace'
"I started with Cassano, because I believed that his pace would give us an advantage against the Ajax defence," Capello said. "But they proved to be fast enough tonight, so it didn't work out as I expected."
All to play for
Capello conceded that Roma had again performed below expectations, but insisted that despite this latest setback, his side can still reach the quarter-finals. "
We performed very poorly tonight as team, but I'm not impressed by Ajax," he said. "They just had the right attitude and played very aggressively. But I believe that if we can create a good team spirit we will still have a chance after the winter break to get involved in this group." Time will tell.
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