|Ajax Amsterdam (0)||Valencia (1)|
|Rodrigo Moreno 24′|
In front of 53,590 Ajax fans at the intimidating Johan Cruyff Arena, Valencia recorded one of their grandest nights in European football history and secured passage into the next round of the Champions League.
Red flares lit up the stadium as the home fans bayed for blood against a Los Che side weakened by injuries and fatigue. Missing a host of key players, the latest being Maxi Gomez, coach Albert Celades had to name three academy players on the bench.
Tired and thinned out, the Bats looked ripe for the taking. But with one kick, Rodrigo Moreno dragged his team of walking wounded into the knockout stages for the first time since 2013 as Valencia scraped a 1-0 win against Ajax Amsterdam.
Ajax dominated the game from start to end, with Valencia’s midfield made to look pedestrian as they were constantly picked apart. Bar the in-form Ferran Torres, the team looked lethargic and in desperate need of a break.
So it was a rude shock to the home side when Valencia took the lead in the 24th minute. Receiving José Gayà’s pass in midfield, Torres threaded a pass to Rodrigo, who took a touch in the box before rifling the ball past Ajax custodian André Onana. The Dutch side had been caught with their pants down.
Eager to make instant amends, Ajax bombarded Jaume Doménech’s goal but the substitute keeper, in place of the injured Jasper Cillessen, held firm. Transforming into the Great Wall, he kept the marauding Dutch from penetrating his goal and screamed at his defenders to form a bulwark to repel the invaders.
His work was almost undone in the 43rd minute when Ajax midfielder Donny van de Beek volleyed towards goal, only to be met by Gayà’s acrobatic clearance off the line.
While Valencia could not match their opponent’s speed and stamina, they made their experience count. Cheeky time wasting rattled Ajax’s young stars, who picked up five yellow cards.
As their impatience translated into petulance, Ajax coach Erik ten Hag, who was missing top scorer Quincy Promes through injury, sent on veterans Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Siem de Jong to steady their fast sinking ship. But Valencia defended desperately, hacking every ball clear as the battle was waged in their half.
The defensive pair of Gabriel Paulista and Mouctar Diakhaby had been immense all night, but a moment of madness by the Brazilian in stoppage time threatened to undo all their hard work.
Ajax captain Dušan Tadić baited the Brazilian into headbutting him, which landed the defender a straight red – the team’s fifth dismissal this season. Fortunately, the team managed to hold on for a couple more minutes, adrenaline powering their tired legs as they eked out a crucial win.
The victory takes Valencia through as group winners while Chelsea qualify as runners-up. With two wins so far in a huge week, Valencia now return home to prepare for Real Madrid’s visit on Monday. Celebrations are in order, but focus remains key.
A visibly elated Rodrigo said: “This team is a big family and I’ve run out of words to describe my teammates. We’ve been able to take Valencia CF to places where we hadn’t been in a while, and we’re still in the fight in this competition and in LaLiga.”