Paris: Summer signing Edson Alvarez and captain Dusan Tadic scored as last season’s semi-finalists Ajax beat APOEL 2-0 in their Champions League play-off second leg on Wednesday to secure their spot in Thursday’s draw for the group stage.
Mexican international defender Alvarez, a 15 million-euro recruit from Club America to replace Juventus-bound Matthijs de Ligt, headed home from a set-piece two minutes before half-time as Ajax were rewarded for their first-half domination.
Tadic then controlled a cross field ball from Klaas-Jan Huntelaar on the edge of the area before rifling home on his left foot with 10 minutes left in Amsterdam as Ajax advanced after a goalless draw in the first leg in Cyprus.
There were nervy moments for Erik ten Hag’s team, who thought they had gone 2-0 up just after half-time when Huntelaar headed in off the underside of the bar.
However, after a VAR review, the goal was disallowed for an extremely tight offside against Joel Veltman in the build-up.
Moments later APOEL had the ball in the net at the other end, but this time the offside was clear for all to see and there would be no precious away goal for the Cypriot champions.
Ajax stunned Real Madrid and Juventus on their way to last season’s Champions League semi-finals, where they were beaten by Tottenham Hotspur. They had already edged out Greek champions PAOK in the third qualifying round.
As well as De Ligt, the four-time European champions have lost midfield starlet Frenkie de Jong to Barcelona since last season’s remarkable run.
Donny van de Beek, who has been linked with Real Madrid, did not play against APOEL, reportedly due to injury.
Ajax will be in the second pot in Thursday’s draw in Monaco, which is due to start at 1600 GMT.
That means they will avoid an early rematch with Tottenham or Madrid, who are both in the same pot. However, they could be drawn alongside holders Liverpool, who are in pot one.
The other clubs in pot one are Manchester City, Chelsea, Barcelona, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and Zenit Saint-Petersburg.
Also on Wednesday, Club Brugge beat LASK Linz of Austria 2-1 to go through 3-1 on aggregate.
Leading 1-0 from the first leg, the Belgians looked to have the tie in the bag when Hans Vanaken put them ahead on the night with 20 minutes left.
Brazilian forward Klauss promptly scored a penalty to set up a nervy finale, but the Austrians were then reduced to 10 men before Emmanuel Bonaventure Dennis’s late effort wrapped up the win for the hosts.
Beaten European Cup finalists in 1978, Club Brugge will be in pot three alongside the likes of Inter Milan, Valencia and Lyon.
Meanwhile, Czech champions Slavia Prague beat CFR Cluj of Romania 1-0, a Jan Boril goal securing a 2-0 aggregate victory.
Slavia’s last appearance in the group stage, in 2007-08, notably saw them lose 7-0 away to Arsenal. They will be in pot four in Thursday’s draw.
Reds are wary
Jurgen Klopp thinks Liverpool face a daunting task in their bid to retain the Champions League title this season given the “crazy” depth of quality in the competition.
Klopp has led Liverpool to back-to-back Champions League finals but is adamant that their impressive recent track record does not make them the title favourites.
“I will have no problem with it (reaching the final) if it happens again, but at this moment I am not too sure it will,” the German coach told British media.
“We have the same chance like everyone else, but that is all, and I don’t see us, the English teams, dominating. I really think a lot of teams have a good chance.” Liverpool are among the top seeds in Pot One along with Chelsea, Barcelona, Manchester City, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Paris St Germain and Zenit St Petersburg for the Champions League group stage draw, which takes place later on Thursday.
The quality of teams in the second pot — which includes Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund — have convinced Klopp there is no need to change the format of the competition when the current cycle ends in 2024.
“I don’t think there was ever a stronger Pot Two. It is just crazy,” the German added. “They should all be in Pot One, but there is not enough space there.
“I don’t think there was ever a stronger Pot Three. If people really think about this kind of Super League, then you don’t need it. That’s it. Then Pot Four you can get RB Leipzig wow!” Klopp expects Liverpool to face stiff competition from a number of heavyweights as they bid for a seventh European crown.
While Juventus, Barcelona, PSG and Dortmund looked to fine-tune their squads in the transfer market, Real Madrid and Bayern have recruited heavily.
“Look at the squad Borussia Dortmund has and tell me we are stronger than them. That is incredible,” Klopp added.
“There are a lot of quality teams: Juventus will be there, PSG will be there. Real Madrid? Do you think they gave up already? Bayern Munich now finally brought in (Ivan) Perisic and (Philippe) Coutinho which is a big boost.”