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Ajax edge Apoel to return to UCL group stage

A goal by midfielder Edson Alvarez on his first start and a brilliant strike by Dusan Tadic fired Ajax into the Champions League group stage as they beat Apoel Nicosia of Cyprus 2-0 on Wednesday following a scoreless draw last week.

They will be joined by Club Brugge, who beat Austrian side LASK Linz 3-1 on aggregate, and Slavia Prague, who claimed a second 1-0 victory over CFR Cluj of Romania to win the two-legged tie 2-0.

After dominating the first half against the dogged Cypriot side, Mexican midfielder Alvarez put Ajax ahead just before the break, heading home Hakim Ziyech's superb free kick.

Klaas Jan Huntelaar thought he had doubled the advantage from a similar Ziyech free kick early in the second half, but his effort was ruled out after a lengthy VAR review found that defender Joel Veltman was marginally offside in the build-up.

Apoel suffered the same fate a few minutes later as an offside flag cancelled out what would have been a precious away goal.

With the visitors tiring visibly, Tadic put the tie beyond doubt with a sublime goal in the 80th minute, deftly controlling Huntelaar's sumptuous crossfield pass before firing an unstoppable shot past Vid Belec.

That brought the 53,100 fans at the Johan Cruyff Arena to their feet, and they sang well after the final whistle to celebrate the progression of the four-times European champions and last season's semi-finalists from a tricky qualifying phase.

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"This was a difficult game for us, but with the help from our fans we were stronger. Teams always play very compact against us, and the state of the pitch today did not help our play," Tadic told reporters after the match.

"But scoring the first goal provided some rest - Ajax belongs in the Champions League, we need to play Champions League every year."

Defender Jan Boril scored for Czech champions Slavia Prague to give them a 1-0 home win over Cluj and a 2-0 aggregate victory to make the group stage of the Champions League for the first time in 12 years.

Midfielder Hans Vanaken put Belgian side Bruges on course for the group stage with a goal in the 70th minute but LASK Linz hauled themselves back into the tie with a penalty 16 minutes from time.

A red card for central defender Gernot Trauner ended their spirited fightback, however, and Emmanuel Dennis sent Bruges through with an 89th-minute goal.

The losing sides go into the draw for the group stages of the Europa League on Friday. The Champions League draw takes place on Thursday.

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