AMSTERDAM (AP) — Defender Nicolas Tagliafico scored twice Wednesday as Ajax celebrated its return to Champions League football with an emphatic 3-0 victory over AEK Athens at the recently renamed Johan Cruyff Arena.
After dominating possession but failing to score in the first half, Argentina defender Tagliafico broke the deadlock just after the break and made it 3-0 in the 90th minute with an effort from an acute angle on the left that sailed over AEK goalkeeper Vassilis Barkas and into the goal.
In between, substitute Donny van de Beek doubled Ajax’s lead with a powerful close-range volley in the 77th.
It was four-time European champion Ajax’s first appearance in the Champions League in four years, while AEK was playing in Europe’s top club competition for the first time in more than a decade.
“You can see with this type of evening that Ajax belongs to the Champions League, Ajax needs to be in Champions League,” said stand-in captain Dusan Tadic, one of the players brought to Amsterdam over the summer to add experience to a roster of talented youngsters like Van de Beek and Frenkie de Jong.
Ajax’s dominant second half performance featured the kind of quick passing, fast-moving attacking play that was a trademark of the Amsterdam club’s teams that won the European Cup three times in the 1970s and again in 1995.
“We played a very mature game,” said Ajax coach Erik ten Hag. “Patient but at a high tempo and finding space between the lines. You know you’re not going to create many chances so you have to be sharp at the right moments.”
Indeed, Ajax dominated possession but failed to create a meaningful chance in the first half but that changed inside a minute after the break when a corner fell to David Neres, who scooped the ball into the penalty area where Tagliafico calmly slotted the ball under Barkas.
Van de Beek made it 2-0 by volleying past Barkas after a cross from the right by Dusan Tadic before Tagliafico completed the scoring with his spectacular effort from the left, which he admitted after the match was intended as a cross, rather than a shot.
AEK defended in numbers and looked dangerous on the break in the first half against a makeshift Ajax defense that saw midfielder De Jong replacing injured captain Matthijs de Ligt at center back alongside Daley Blind. But the Greek champion was outplayed after the break and rarely threatened.