Ajax coach Henk de Jong showed his confidence in 18-year-old Sergino Dest, throwing the Dutch-American into his biggest game yet as a second-half sub in Ajax's UEFA Champions League
qualifier against Greece's PAOK.
Ajax reached the 2018-19 semifinals, losing on the last touch of the ball to Liverpool, but as Dutch champion must go through qualifying
(two rounds) to enter the 2019-20 competition. Now without Matthijs de Ligt (sold to Juventus) and Frenkie de Jong (Barcelona), Ajax has looked vulnerable.
It almost didn't
survive the series against PAOK. After a 2-2 tie in Thessaloniki, PAOK took the lead Tuesday night and gave the shaky Ajax defense problems.
Ajax was saved by three penalties called
against PAOK and advanced with a 3-2 win in Amsterdam. Captain Dusan Tadic scored two but had a third penalty kick saved. A header from Argentine left back Nicolas Tagliafico put Ajax
ahead for good in the 79h minute.
Dest was brought on at the break for struggling Romanian Razvan Marin. Dest was slotted in at right back, allowing Dutch-born Moroccan star
Noussair Mazraoui to take Marin's place in midfield. Dest held his own, though he was fortunate that PAOK could not take advantage of a big giveaway.
Ajax, the four-time European
champion, moved into the playoff round, where it will face APOEL of Cyprus. If Ajax qualifies, it will be drawn into the group stage as a top 16 seed, jumping ahead of teams already through to the
32-team group stage.
Two other former champions did not fare as well. Scotland's Celtic exited after a 4-3 loss at home to Romania's CFR Cluj. Porto was eliminated when it lost 3-2 at
home to Russia's Krasnodar, squandering a 1-0 lead from the first leg and failing to capitalize on a barrage of 25 shots.
Ethan Horvath's Club Brugge held off Dynamo Kyev,
advancing on aggregate with a 4-3 series win after a 3-3 tie in Kiev. Once again, new Belgian signing Simon Mignolet started ahead of Horvath in goal.
Pulisic (Chelsea), Tim Weah (Lille) and Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig) are on teams that have already qualified for the group stage