Wesley Sneijder's strike a minute into added time cancelled out Miroslav Matušovič's opener to earn AFC Ajax a draw at AC Sparta Praha in the opening round of fixtures in UEFA Champions League Group B.
Sparta substitute Matušovič seemed to have punished the Dutch visitors for their failure to capitalise on a string of first-half opportunities when he put the Czech side ahead with a blistering shot six minutes past the hour. Just as the points appeared to be within Sparta's reach, however, Sneijder ruined the party with an equally spectacular equaliser.
Ajax coach Danny Blind fielded an unchanged team, the visitors lining up in an attacking 4-3-3 formation which featured the Czech contingent, Tomáš Galásek and Zdeněk Grygera, facing several international team-mates. Sparta coach Jaroslav Hrebík went for a 4-3-2-1, spearheaded by lone forward Miroslav Slepička. Steven Pienaar's clever interplay with Swedish international Markus Rosenberg caused immediate concern for Sparta, while at the other end Slepička failed to connect with Karol Kisel's dangerous centre from the right.
Ajax on top
Sneijder had the first sight of goal, forcing Jaromír Blažek into action to keep out his powerful effort from the left, the Sparta custodian reacting smartly to prevent the predatory Pienaar from turning in the rebound. Ajax continued to pose Sparta problems as the half progressed, with Dutch international Sneijder's lively presence providing a potent threat and young striker Ryan Babel showing occasional flashes of brilliance.
Ajax's threat kept on growing and Rosenberg was a whisker away from securing the advantage as he narrowly failed to touch in Pienaar's deft right-wing delivery. Sparta, increasingly pinned back in their own half, struggled to contain the Eredivisie outfit's effervescent attack and their own forays into Ajax territory became infrequent, causing frustration among the home fans.
Sparta fight back
However, in one of those rare incursions, Karel Poborský created a half-chance for Lukáš Zelenka but the curly-haired midfielder powered the ball over the bar. The best openings carried on coming Ajax's way, though, and minutes later, Sneijder found Rosenberg in space on the left. The Swede, cutting in, fired just wide of Blažek's post. As the interval approached, Sparta finally imposed themselves, breaking up Ajax's fluent play and drawing their sting in midfield. Three minutes after the restart, Sparta replaced Slepička with Matušovič, a switch that was to prove significant.
Matušovič goes close
Shortly after, Sparta were nearly caught out by a speculative ball from Ajax's defence that forced Blažek to head half-clear from the edge of his box, with Sneijder subsequently shooting narrowly wide. Yet that was an isolated incident, as Sparta looked the more dangerous team and went close to taking the lead when Matušovič's long-range effort bounced off the foot of the post and was scrambled away by Hans Vonk.
Suitably encouraged, Sparta pushed forward and were in front within seconds. Ajax failed to clear a corner and the ball fell to Matušovič on the right of the area, and his 25-metre drive screamed into the top corner. Babel almost levelled for Ajax, his shot from outside the box beating Blažek but crashing against a post.
Spurred into action, Blind threw on Greece striker Angelos Charisteas and the positive approach brought reward in added time. Sneijder had been finding his range all evening, but finally produced a telling attempt when it mattered most, his powerful strike from 20 metres evading Blažek's clutches and rescuing a point for the visitors.