A youthful Ajax suffered a surprising elimination from the cup tournament on Thursday evening. In Leeuwaarden, Cambuur was too strong, defeating Ajax 2-1. Martijn Barto sealed the game with his two goals. Pelle Clement’s goal might have been the catalyst for a turnaround, but this didn’t happen in the end.
The biggest question prior to the third cup match of the season was which young team would coach Peter Bosz send to battle. The talents that he had used against Willem II (5-0) and Kozakken Boys (6-1) performed so well in these games that he gave them a chance to play in the UEFA Europa League, too. Bosz will no longer refer to them as second choice. “In those matches, all of these guys showed that they are full members of the A-selection.”
But back to the question at hand. The team that was sent in to reach the quarter-finals of the cup tournament was a combination of the previous cup match against Kozakken Boys and the European home game against Panathinaikos. Diederik Boer was in goal, and defense consisted of Kenny Tete, Matthijs de Ligt, Nick Viergever (who will be suspended for next Sunday’s game against PSV) and Mitchell Dijks. Midfield (Frenkie de Jong, Donny van de Beek and Abdelhak Nouri) was identical as in the last twenty minutes against Panathinaikos, as was offense, consisting of Vaclav Cerny, Mateo Cassierra and Pelle Clement. This game against Cambuur marked De Jong’s debut on the squad.
While we are comparing, twelve days ago, a very young Ajax Reserves defeated Cambuur 1-3. The most experienced players were – except for internationals Tim Krul and Thulani Serero - Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong and Pelle Clement. In the final ten minutes, the talented young Ajax Reserves brought the team to a 1-3 win. And there was no getting around it; expectations were therefore set quite high for this cup match.
For Cambuur, it was a repeat of the previous cup match in Leeuwarden. Twenty years ago, the Fries team qualified for the quarter-finals at Ajax’s expense. Coach Sipke Hulshoff had therefore set his team up in a 5-3-2 formation in the hope to hurt Ajax in the counter.
And that is exactly what happened in the twentieth minute. De Jong bounced the ball to Van de Beek too carelessly, and Hoefdraad, anticipating well, picked up the ball and passed to Martijn Barto. The striker passed Boer, 1-0. Cambuur had the lead it wanted. The home team could therefore stick with their tactic. Ajax attempted to find an opening, but was too sloppy or too transparent to hurt the Leeuwarden team.
However, Cambuur did manage to hit Ajax hard. In the 38th minute, Niehnuis kicked the ball far out, De Ligt sent it out with a header, but the home team gained possession. Barto was sent out, he accelerated towards Boer, and this second opportunity was destined for him as well: 2-0. The fact that Cambuur is the only team in this cup tournament with a totally clean sheet caused some worry for the rest of the game.
Bosz continued with the players from the first half. It would be their job to find an opening in the yellow and blue clad wall, turn the deficit around and reach the quarter-finals. But it was Cambuur who continued to get the best opportunities. This time, no goals were scored.
With less than thirty minutes on the clock, Bosz took some tough measures. He sent in Kasper Dolberg, Lasse Schöne and Amin Younes in at the same time. Dijks, Cerny and De Jong were out and Ajax started playing with three men at the back. Bosz’s team escaped unscathed once again when Cambuur had a shot at 3-0. But five minutes after coming in, Schöne curved the ball nicely past the second post on a corner. Clement had an unhindered opportunity and scored with a header, 2-1. The game was back on. The game ebbed and flowed back and forth and became a great cup match. Barto had the 3-1 goal at his feet in the 72nd minute, but his shot went over.
Ajax picked up after that. Clement had his second opportunity in the 79th minute, and sent a hard shot onto the crossbar. In the nail-biting final minutes, both teams’ forwards regularly appeared in front of the goals, but no more goals came. After the loss at Twente last Sunday, and this loss in Friesland, Ajax needs to ensure that they close this first half of the season well on Sunday, when they face PSV.