You know you’ve performed exceptionally well in a UEFA Europa League quarter-final when your main regret is that you only beat a Bundesliga team by two goals. Yet such was Ajax’s domination of last week’s Amsterdam first leg that a four or even five-goal victory wouldn’t have flattered them.
The main challenge for opponents Schalke now is working out how best to prevent Ajax recreating the danger which last Thursday came all over the park. Amin Younes was electric, clearly the best German on the pitch, and a constant threat down the left. Justin Kluivert also caused problems down the right, setting up the second goal.
However, if The Miners try to stifle the supply from the flanks, they risk leaving the middle more open, where Davy Klaassen and Bertrand Traoré pose a real menace. Behind them, velvet-footed midfielder Hakim Ziyech instigates a terrific amount of Ajax attacks, while coach Peter Bosz can also call on David Neres and Kasper Dolberg if required, suggesting Ajax have too much firepower to let their lead slip.
Even so, here are three reasons why Die Königsblauen may still find themselves in the semi-final draw.
1. Remaining optimistic and going for it
A 2-0 deficit is difficult to recover, but by no means impossible – because a second leg can be entirely different from the first. Just ask Paris Saint-Germain, who sensationally squandered a four-goal advantage against Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League last month. When the fanatical Nordkurve supporters get behind their team, the Arena AufSchalke can intimidate even the most experienced sides. Schalke are also unlikely to play as poorly as they did in Amsterdam. They also know this is their last chance of silverware this season, so they have nothing to lose. It’s all or nothing.
If the hosts can successfully implement trainer Markus Weinzierl’s gegenpressing philosophy then we could have a very different game. The plan involves putting the opposition under pressure the moment you lose the ball, in order to win it back as quickly as possible. In other words, don’t retreat into a defensive formation and wait for them to come at you, but harry them into surrendering possession. Should Schalke perform this way, it could severely disrupt Ajax’s ability to build from the back – something central to their approach.
3. Ralf Fährmann
The Schalke keeper really was exceptional in the first leg, denying Traoré (twice) and Younes in one-v-ones, tipping two other efforts onto the bar and making various other crucial interventions. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar later admitted the 28-year-old “kept us in the tie with his performance”. Fährmann is also vital to coach Weinzierl’s desire to play from the back; many a move starts with his distribution.