By Toby Davis
Four-times European Champions Ajax Amsterdam were felled at the first hurdle of the continent’s second tier Europa League on Thursday, exiting in the group stage after rivals PSV Eindhoven celebrated long-awaited success.
Dutch football was in a jubilant mood after PSV became the first club in eight years from the Netherlands to reach the last 16 of the Champions League on Tuesday, but Ajax’s failure to make it out of Group A following a 1-1 draw at home to Molde will have dampened enthusiasm.
Ajax were pipped to second place by Fenerbahce, whose 1-1 draw with Celtic added their name to the lengthy list of qualifiers for the knockout rounds which included Olympique de Marseille, Sion and Midtjylland after Thursday’s early games.
Fifteen teams had booked their spots in the last 32 before the final group matches, leaving nine places up for grabs, with eight teams set to drop into the competition from the Champions League.
Among those safely into the hat for the next stage were Napoli, who rounded off their impressive group stage campaign with a 5-2 thrashing of Legia Warsaw to end with a perfect record of six straight wins.
Their romp in Naples, in which Dries Mertens scored twice, took their group total to 22 goals, the most by any side in this season’s competition.
Ajax, one of Europe’s most decorated and storied teams, had won four straight domestic titles between 2010 and 2014 and currently lead the table, but they are no longer the force they once were on the continent.
They came into their final group match needing to win and hoping Fenerbahce would slip up against Celtic, beginning with promise by taking the lead through Donny van de Beek’s looping header after 14 minutes.
Yet Norwegian outfit Molde, under the guidance of coach and former Manchester United striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, have proved surprisingly impressive in the Europa League and Harmeet Singh levelled with a low shot 15 minutes before halftime.
Fenerbahce, at this point, were leading Celtic 1-0 through Liverpool loanee Lazar Markovic’s 39th-minute goal, and although the Scottish side fought back to level through Kris Commons, a draw was enough to leave the Turkish side second behind Molde and two points clear of Ajax.
Swiss side Sion celebrated wildly after they drew 0-0 at home to already qualified Liverpool to secure second spot in Group B, ahead of Rubin Kazan who were held 2-2 by Girondins Bordeaux.
Midtjylland drew 1-1 with Club Bruges to finish second in group D behind Napoli, while Marseille resisted a late fightback from Slovan Liberec to win 4-2 in the Czech Republic and finish runners-up to Braga who were also already secure of their place in the next round.
Scores from Europa League on Thursday:
Ajax 1 – 1 Molde
Fenerbahce 1 – 1 Celtic
Bordeaux 2 – 2 Rubin Kazan
FC Sion 0 – 0 Liverpool
Bor Dortmund 0 – 1 PAOK Salonika
FK Qabala 0 – 3 FK Krasnodar
FC Midtjylland 1 – 1 Club Brugge
Napoli 5 – 2 Legia War
Rapid Vienna 2 – 1 Dinamo Minsk
Viktoria Pizen 3 – 3 Villareal
FC Groningen 0 – 0 Sporting Braga
Slovan Liberec 2 – 4 Marseille
Anderlecht 2 – 1 FK Qarabag
Tottenham 4 – 1 Monaco
Apoel Nic 1 – 3 Sparta Prague
Asteras Tripolis 0 – 4 Schalke
Ath Bilbao 2 – 2 AZ Alkmaar
P’zan Belgrade 1 – 3 FC Augsburg
Dnipro D’trovsk 3 – 0 Rosenborg
St Etienne 1 – 1 Lazio
S’kbeu Korce 0 – 3 L’motiv Moscow
Sporting 3 – 1 Besiktas
Fiorentina 1 – 0 Belenenses
Lech Poznan 0 – 1 Basel