Ajax set the stage for its 4-1 win against NEC during the first half of the competition match. The Amsterdam win could have been (much) bigger had Ajax been sharper in the second half. Ajax was only impressive for one half, but, as of Sunday, is back in the race for the title.
Ajax enjoyed a genuine dream start in the Amsterdam ArenA. In the fifth minute, centre forward Dmitry Bulykin brought his team into a 1-0 lead by scoring from close by. Siem de Jong’s preparation was worth its weight in gold. The right midfielder outplayed Kevin Conboy and served the Russian with an unmissable opportunity. Three minutes later, all Ajax fans in the ArenA cheered again. Jan Vertonghen struck after De Jong had, with a header, extended Aras Özbiliz’s corner. Ajax enjoyed a 2-0 lead within ten minutes. Ajax hasn’t had that luxury very often during the past months.
The quick 3-0 thanks to – once again – Bulykin gave the dream start extra polish. The Russian this time took advantage of Eriksen and Özbiliz’s preparation, after which Bulykin got to the ball a fraction more quickly than Babos. Before the first half had ended, NEC was already fighting a losing battle. It was very different last season. After a terrible match, Ajax – NEC ended 1-1. Ajax followed that up with a 0-3 win in Nijmegen.
Babos barely got the opportunity to catch his breath. Kenneth Vermeer was noticeably less busy. Before the break, he made his most important save on a sharp shot from Leroy George. With the 3-0 halftime score, the biggest optimists in the ArenA must have been hoping for the team to better its record score against NEC. In the 1967-1968 season, the score in Amsterdam was 9-1.
The record win wasn’t broken. And Ajax had only itself to thank. Although Bulykin’s early departure due to a slight injury in the first half didn’t help matters. Only minutes after the centre forward was treated at the side-lines, he was called off field by coach Frank de Boer. ‘Buly’ complained of cramps. With a long list of injured players, as well as the upcoming return match against Manchester United, it was better not to take any risks. Nicolás Lodeiro came in to replace him.
The full injured player list had already had its effect on De Boer’s starting line- up. Ricardo van Rhijn was Gregory van der Wiel’s replacement as right back. Vurnon Anita was controlling midfielder, while De Jong also played at midfield. Theo Janssen was forced to sit out this match against NEC, but is expected to be fit for Thursday’s Europa League return on against Manchester United.
“We didn’t perform well in the second half”, said Frank de Boer critically. The win satisfied Ajax’s coach, but the team’s play after the break disappointed him. “You’d expect more after 4-0. We were very sloppy. Our fatigue after the Manchester United match can be an excuse. But, especially when you’re tired, you need to play simply and let the ball go. It’s a shame we played a second half like that.”
A goal on De Jong’s header (4-0, scored on Eriksen’s corner) gave Ajax’s win a bit more cachet. Vermeer’s error in judgement, and the resulting 4-1 by Rens van Eijden (header) were a slightly sour note of the afternoon. The same can be said of Ajax’s missed opportunities.
“We could have had three goals against today”, said De Boer, who had a possible explanation for his players’ inconsistency. “Maybe it says something about the team’s maturity. I’m pleased with a 4-1 win, and with our competitor’s results this weekend. In the race for the title, we’ll mostly need to look to ourselves during the next while.”
Ajax’s win against NEC and their title competitors’ mistakes add up to make Ajax the big winner of this weekend in the Eredivisie. On Saturday evening, Feyenoord squandered precious points (1-1) against RKC. On Sunday afternoon, PSV and AZ both lost to FC Groningen (3-0) and FC Utrecht (3-0) respectively. The point difference with leaders AZ and PSV is at five points. As of Sunday, the race for the title has become much more exciting. Reigning national champion Ajax can hope for a 31st championship. And that’s something that nobody would have seen coming two weeks ago, after a blistering loss to FC Utrecht at home…