The 1-0 defeat at FC Groningen means a costly loss of points for Ajax in their quest to extend their Eredivisie title. On Sunday, ten Ajax players went down in the Euroborg. “I thought we were better with ten men than with eleven”, said Frank de Boer in retrospect, referring to the phase which came after Gregory van der Wiel’s red card. “That’s something to think about.”
FC Groningen coach Pieter Huistra expressed his expectations in the FC Groningen – Ajax program. “I expect an open football battle”, predicted the coach and former international. Huistra’s words came true. A thrilling match unfolded on Sunday in the Euroborg in Groningen. Unfortunately, the outcome wasn’t favourable for Ajax. The battle resulted in a well-deserved win for Groningen.
Lorenzo Burnet and Johan Kappelhof made themselves heard before the match up north. The winger defensemen were fodder for the press on the match’s eve. Burnet and Kappelhof traded (Jong) Ajax for FC Groningen after last season. The defenders earned a spot on Huistra’s squad quickly. Left back Burnet has been especially outstanding on an almost weekly basis with his new club. Face to face with his direct opponent Miralem Sulejmani, Burnet lived up to expectations on Sunday. The Amsterdam native regularly came up to attack, forcing his opponent to defend. Sulejmani covered more ground on defence than offense.
Five days after the Champions League loss to Real Madrid (3-0), Ajax made very little happen during the match. A wide shot from Sulejmani, and a long distance shot from Vertonghen sum up the best of the team’s chances before the break. Ajax made too little happen and were forced to witness Leandro Bacuna just miss out on putting the home team in the lead before the break. His header disappeared over Kenneth Vermeer’s goal.
After the break, Ajax not only needed to shift into higher gear, but come out hungry in order to beat the Groningen team. Last year, the meeting in Groningen ended in a 2-2 tie. After league leader AZ had disposed of VVV-Venlo earlier in the afternoon (1-3), Ajax literally had no choice but to achieve a better result than the tie from one year ago. In addition to Burnet, the mobile Dusan Tadic made life difficult for the Amsterdammers. It often proved too difficult to get a grip on these die hard players.
Kolbeinn Sigthórsson’s early exit was a blow for coach Frank de Boer. The Icelander twisted his right ankle and could only manage twenty more minutes in the Euroborg after that. Further examination will tell how long Sigthórsson will be out. Sigthórsson’s early departure coloured the latest FC Groningen – Ajax match. Dmitry Bulykin was his substitute at the tip of Ajax’s offense. The Russian seemed poised to play for the remaining seventy minutes and thus stood a good chance of impressing his coach.
Bulykin’s playing time turned out to be limited, after a new blow for the team from Amsterdam. Gregory van der Wiel, and Ajax, paid a heavy price after the back tried to prevent a goal with hands. Referee Richard Liesveld gave the Ajax player a red card, and awarded Groningen a penalty. “At the time, I thought that Greg’s punishment was heavy-handed”, says De Boer, looking back with dissatisfaction at the match’s breaking point. “He didn’t approach the ball with his hand, and wanted to stand up quickly. The second yellow card was a pretty severe punishment. The penalty was deserved, but yellow cards aren’t always handed out consistently.”
After an hour, Leandro Bacuna – who is currently a sensation in Huistra’s team – sent Kenneth Vermeer into the wrong corner from twelve yards out: 1-0. The ten Ajax players never recovered from the blow. “I was surprised that we played more aggressively with ten men”, said De Boer. “We played with resignation, as though we were waiting for something to happen first, and then react to it. That has to change. We need to react earlier. You know that when you play here, you’re meeting a very enthusiastic team and a home crowd. We had a hard time with that. And if you have a hard time with that, then you need to win with your fighting spirit. We were too blue in the first half. I think we need to take more initiative, and be more aggressive. Especially when we have possession. We were much too casual before the break.”
After eight rounds of play, Ajax is in third place of the Eredivisie. They are down six points against leader AZ. On Sunday, title competitor FC Twente also played to a surprising tie against Excelsior, 2-2.