Greek striker Yannis Anastasiou was on target twice as AFC Ajax kick-started their faltering UEFA Champions League Group B campaign with a comfortable 2-0 victory against FC Thun at the Amsterdam ArenA.
Anastasiou was told he was to be released in March, but newly-arrived coach Danny Blind intervened because of his positive influence on younger players. That decision was vindicated in style. After an Ajax-dominated first half, the 32-year-old broke the deadlock nine minutes before the interval, clinically slotting in from eight metres. Mauro Lustrinelli worked opportunities for the visitors before and after, but Anastasiou doubled the lead ten minutes after the restart as Ajax sidled into second place in the section.
Blind had rung the changes following a dispiriting goalless draw against Heracles Almelo at the weekend, with Hedwiges Maduro and Steven Pienaar both back from injury. But the surprise came in attack where Anastasiou was preferred to Markus Rosenberg and Nourdin Boukhari. The veteran almost made his mark within the first ten minutes, but the goal at his mercy, Anastasiou glanced his header wide.
De Jong dominant
It was the culmination of a bright start by the hosts, who controlled the opening exchanges but struggled to find their poise in the final third. Nigel de Jong was especially impressive in the build-up, clearly revelling in the space afforded him by a hesitant Thun defence. He could have made the breakthrough as early as the fourth minute, but after cushioning the ball, his shot was smothered by Eldin Jakupovic.
The Dutch international remained a threat, however, and fizzed two efforts just wide of goal midway through the half. He was finding ample support on the right from the increasingly advanced Hatem Trabelsi, who tried his luck too on the half-hour. But Ajax almost paid for a lack of patience as the Tunisian full-back was still trotting back when Gelson Rodrigues exploited the vacated space before passing to Lustrinelli, who just failed to find the target.
The warning finally spurred Ajax into action, and they went ahead on 36 minutes when Pienaar passed towards the penalty spot where Anastasiou was on hand to deflect the ball just inside the near post. Maarten Stekelenburg had still to be tested but had to be alert just before the interval when Nelson Ferreira fed Lustrinelli, who forced the goalkeeper to dive at full length to turn his attempt around the post.
Lustrinelli has scored nine goals this season, and on the rare occasions the visitors pushed forward he proved a menace to the Ajax rearguard. He drew another save from Stekelenburg four minutes after the restart after feinting past the last defender, but by that time Thun could, and should, have been two down. Pienaar was the guilty party, benefiting from a fortuitous deflection on Mauro Rosales's cross. But with the goal at his mercy, he blazed over.
Anastasiou showed more poise on 55 minutes when Alen Orman's tackle rolled straight to him just inside the area, and the former RSC Anderlecht man applied a first-time finish. He could have completed his hat-trick in the closing stages when he shot over from close range, but by then his job was done, and he left the field two minutes later to rousing applause. The Dutch club will hope for more of the same in the return fixture in Switzerland in a fortnight's time.