Both coaches praised their sides after an entertaining 1-1 Group B draw in Amsterdam.
By Theo Ruizenaar
AFC Ajax will return to the Stadio Olimpico, scene of their 1996 UEFA Champions League final defeat by Juventus FC, needing just a point against AS Roma to advance to this year's last eight after a draw with Valencia CF that left both coaches praising their teams.
Valencia, wearing orange - a shade more associated with home teams in Amsterdam - seemed to have revived their stuttering campaign in style when Kily González's first-half penalty following a Tomáš Galásek pull on Francisco Rufete put them ahead, but Ajax came back strongly after the break, equalising through Finnish defender Petri Pasanen, and home coach Ronald Koeman was clearly pleased with his young side's latest impressive performance.
'A fabulous second half'
"We played a top European team, and my team played a fabulous second half, " said Koeman after the match. "
If one side deserved a win today it was Ajax." Koeman's side had also drawn 1-1 in Valencia on Matchday 7, but that day the Spanish champions dominated the match and Ajax were fortunate to escape with a point, whereas tonight there was little to choose between the sides.
'Our best match'
"This was our best match in the Champions League this season," added Koeman. "Today we played a team that reached the final twice in the last four seasons, who had already proved to be at their best away from home, and after seeing how my team put them under pressure I only can give my guys compliments."
Opportunities to win
Valencia came into the game knowing defeat could end their campaign after their 3-0 defeat by AS Roma a fortnight ago, their first ever Champions League reverse at the Mestalla stadium. Like Ajax, they had opportunities to win the game and, of course, led at half-time, but visiting coach Rafael Benítez was not disappointed even though his team still lie third in Group B.
'We had our chances'
"We have to be satisfied with this result," Benítez said. "
We had our chances to win this match, but in the second half too many dead-ball situations disrupted our rhythm and we were forced to use the long ball, which was not to our advantage." Pasanen's equaliser came from a corner, the fifth consecutive goal conceded by Valencia from a set-piece. However, Benítez said: "It does not matter that we conceded a goal from a dead-ball situation. We have learn from conceding another goal - not from the way it came."
As for the set-piece that brought Valencia's goal, Galásek admitted he did pull Rufete. The Czech international said: "Rufete held my shirt first, but then I held him by his arm and the referee decided penalty. I was surprised that the referee did not show me a yellow card. It was an unlucky moment for me and my team."
However, his team will need only a draw to go through when they face Roma. Considering many thought Ajax as the outsiders in Group B, for Koeman's young side to still be leading after avoiding defeats in their matches against Arsenal FC and Valencia is a creditable achievement indeed.
'Job has to be done'
The Spanish champions, meanwhile, will welcome Arsenal to the Mestalla knowing victory will confirm their place in the quarter-finals, although a draw is unlikely to save their campaign. Benítez concluded: "For today we have to be satisfied with this result and now we have to make sure that all my players will be fit for next week, because then the job has to be done."