AFC Ajax coach Henk ten Cate is banking on his side's counterattacking prowess to save the day at SK Slavia Praha after a surprise home defeat last night.
The Czech challengers stunned the Amsterdam ArenA with a 1-0 victory, courtesy of David Kalivoda's late penalty which came after Ajax striker Klaas Jan Huntelaar had himself missed from the spot on the hour. It was a bitter blow to Ten Cate after a six-week pre-season campaign that had been all about preparation for this match, given that Ajax also missed out on last season's UEFA Champions Leage group stage after defeat by FC København in the third qualifying round.
Despite having seen new striker Luis Suárez link up well with Huntelaar and some adventurous play from his side even after the sale of playmaker Wesley Sneijder to Real Madrid CF, Ten Cate was understandably downbeat. "This is a setback. We did not score even though we had plenty of opportunities, even a penalty. When you then still do not manage to score, you do not deserve to win. That is clear. There is no real explanation for this. The bit of luck the attackers needed to score was lacking, although our defence did not give much away."
Ten Cate believes the Suárez and Huntelaar partnership can yet pay dividends in the Czech capital, especially with another fortnight's work together, while Spanish veteran Ismael Urzaiz will hope to have more of a contribution off the bench. "We certainly still stand a chance in the away match," Ten Cate added. "I think that Slavia, who I still do not consider to be a wonder team, will play a bit more forward at home, giving us some more opportunities." Regardless, few would argue that Slavia, who have begun their domestic campaign with two wins and no goals conceded, are the slight favourites for a first group-stage entry.
Coach Karel Jarolím headed home today safe in the knowledge that his pre-match wish for a solid defensive display and a "vital" away goal had come to fruition. Yet he is naturally urging caution, knowing the Ajax attackers will not be expected to be so profligate on 29 August. "We coped well with the aggressive play of the home side and kept a clean sheet thanks to goalkeeper Martin Vaniak, who was outstanding, but the whole team played very well today. Nevertheless it is just a first step, the return game will be very tough."
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