Leader Ajax showed two faces in its away match against NAC. In Breda, a mediocre first half was followed by a faster paced second half. The 0-2 win brought a 32nd national championship within reach for Ajax. On Sunday, the Ajax – Willem II match will be the championship game.
Shortly before kick-off against NAC, Ajax saw its main title competitor post a gleaming victory against FC Groningen (5-2). At the start of the game, the Amsterdam lead on the Eindhoven team was virtually reduced to one point. An Ajax win would once again increase its lead to four points – just like the lead on close competitor Feyenoord. The Rotterdam team will play on Sunday. The outlook – should they win in Breda – towards a championship match against Willem II was the only warming thought in the damp chill of the Rat Verlegh Stadium. A victory against NAC would make the Ajax players immune to Feyenoord and PSV’s performances.
Frank de Boer called on Ruben Ligeon against NAC. The right back replaced the suspended Ricardo van Rhijn. Ligeon had only played in the cup match against ONS Sneek this season. Van Rhijn watched his team mates play from the stands in the sold out visitors’ stand. “We haven’t lost anything this season with Toby Alderweireld and Niklas Moisander in our centre” declared Ajax’s coach, explaining his decision to slot Ligeon in and to maintain his steady defensive heart. Alderweireld is also a good right back, but that’s not the position he was put in.
Ryan Babel, to the surprise of many, was slotted in at the last minute into the squad. Christian Poulsen, according to the official communicated line-up, seemed poised to start as controller at midfield. The Dane actually ended up doing the opposite of right back Babel and started out on the bench. Lasse Schone was thus the central defender who started with Ajax.
The memory of Ajax’s 5-0 win against NAC earlier this season brought high expectations to the Ajax fans. The fact that Ajax has been undefeated at NAC since 2003 also inspired confidence. The 31 time national champion was in a position to gain some ground in its championship quest in Breda. Despite that, the leader had a difficult time with the opponent that it has clubbed with five goals against in the ArenA. Rick ten Voorde almost brought the home team into the lead in the beginning. The forward shot from close by and, via an Ajax leg, his shot went over. From the next corner, Eric Botteghin’s header hit the crossbar. In that phase, Ajax, who were given a code red in terms of threatening plays, escaped unscathed. The guest actually escaped with difficulty. NAC regularly had ten men after the ball, in effect closing the route towards Jelle ten Rouwelaar. The home team’s keeper didn’t have much work to do in the first 45 minutes. In fact, it was only left forward Viktor Fischer who – after half an hour of playing – who put Ten Rouwelaar under fire. The Dane’s shot disappeared into the goalie’s right glove. Other (long distance) shots often sailed over or ended up wide by far.
When play resumed after the break, everything was different. Was some mysterious force at work, or was it De Boer’s (undoubtedly) fiery locker room speech which hit the mark? After a leading shot from Fischer, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson sent a crystal clear shot, two minutes into the second half and from a difficult position, straight in: 0-1. Ajax also scored a quick second goal and thus traded its difficult position for a very comfortable one. Siem de Jong saw his header from a Christian Eriksen corner, via Tim Gilissen, end up in the Breda goal: 0-2.
The last, difficult hurdle had definitely been cleared by Ajax. NAC’s powers ebbed away visibly. The passionate battle they had exhibited before the break had taken its toll. De Jong, with his shot against the post, came closest to scoring a third Ajax goal. With substitutes Danny Hoesen (for Babel) and birthday boy Isaac Cuenca (Sigthorsson), the guests kept on hunting for extra goals. Fellow substitute Poulsen acted as the extra lock on the Amsterdam team’s door in the closing minutes. Despite what was posted on the scoreboard (0-3 was on the board briefly), a third Ajax goal wasn’t in the cards. After a few anxious moments before the break, Ajax remained undamaged. Frank de Boer’s team even stood gloriously tall in the end.
“ I enjoyed today. I think we also took a big step mentally”, said De Boer. “The professional way in which we played this out should give us confidence. De Jong, Schone and Eriksen for example could always be played to. Good decisions were made and the position play was often fantastic. I need to compliment everyone.”
Ajax showed two very different faces in two game halves in Breda. The Ajax players most likely are unconcerned with this; the second to last game was won easily in the end. The formula for this upcoming week is clear. De Boer’s selection can await the championship match against Willem II in the sold out ArenA in all confidence. Facing the last-placed team, reigning champion Ajax must win its 32nd national championship in club history.
“Obviously, we can’t give this away now”, decided Frank de Boer, referring to the looming championship match. The title should be won in the game against Willem II. “On Sunday, it will be number 1 against number 18. But we’ll still need to do the work.”