Prior to its last performance of 2014, Ajax had only one mission. The first half of the season needed to end well at Excelsior. The difficult football afternoon did get a happy end, in the nick of time: 0-2, thanks to super substitute and strongman Mike van der Hoorn.
The relief was tremendous directly after the last match of the first half of the season. The Ajax players celebrated on the artificial turf in Rotterdam with the 400 Ajax fans who had come along. Mike van der Hoorn was the name that many were talking about. Only ten minutes earlier, Frank de Boer had brought in the defender as an extra centre forward. After 82 minutes of football, the score was 0-0. Only two minutes after he came in, the substitute brought all Ajacieds to their feet. Van der Hoorn scored flawlessly from the edge of the box. Afterwards, another substitute, Richairo Zivkovic, made good too. Ajax was in no position to complain with a 0-2 win in Kralingen. Thus 2014 was closed with a big smile.
Beforehand, the big question was how would Ajax play, three days after the disappointing cup loss (0-4) to Vitesse. After the midweek cup elimination, it seemed that mental toughness would be the order of the day. On Saturday, title competitor PSV had been crowned winter champion. The Eindhoven team closed the calendar year with a convincing win against Go Ahead Eagles. Ajax needed nothing less than a win in the sold-out Woudestein in order to stay on PSV’s heels. “We need to continue to put pressure on PSV”, said Frank de Boer in his pre-match conference. “Our deficit cannot increase. We cannot afford any mistakes.” Prior to the away game at Excelsior, the deficit on PSV was four points.
In contrast, on Thursday, Excelsior had had a confidence-boosting win in the KNVB Cup tournament. The Rotterdam team, who hadn’t posted an Eredivisie win in almost two months, left NAC hopeless, 6-0. Since its promotion from the Jupiler League, Excelsior has been the only Eredivisie team who hasn’t managed to keep a clean sheet at all this season. The Kralingen club is still waiting for its first clean sheet in 33 matches. On the other hand, Ajax was the only Eredivisie club which hadn’t had a loss in the last twelve competition matches.
Ajax had a difficult time for a while on the Eredivisie’s smallest field. Excelsior was definitely able to call the shots for the first 45 minutes, as well as create the corresponding opportunities. Sander Fischer (header over) and Ninos Gouriye (shot) missed big chances to open the score. After that, Adil Auassar’s shot went just wide. The visitors also came away lucky minutes later on an attempt from, once again, Gouriye. Jasper Cillessen made a very important save. In Rotterdam, the Ajax player was keeping in his fiftieth Eredivisie match.
Lasse Schöne returned to Ajax’s squad in Woudestein. The Dane had watched the cup match against Vitesse from the bench. The slight groin injury he’s been suffering from seem to have gotten better. The Dane was therefore able to start in Ajax’s final performance on 2014, which was also Ajax’s last match with Aegon as main sponsor. Jairo Riedewald was, just like he had been against Vitesse, in the starting line-up. The Ajax player started at left back, surprisingly enough. On Thursday, the teenager started as the central man at midfield. Riedewald, with his starting spot, edged Nick Viergever out of the starting line-up. Lucas Andersen also returned to the squad as left midfielder. Ajax’s left flank was thus completely new.
Ajax only managed to create two opportunities in the first half, both on free kicks. Schöen saw his free kick disappear into Gino Coutinho’s gloves. A shot by Ricardo van Rhijn sailed over the Rotterdam goal. Mediocre play and few opportunities; it was a meagre harvest after a difficult first half for Ajax on the artificial turf of the Rotterdam stadium.
Van Rhijn was the one who seemed to light the fire after halftime. The wing defender saw his hard shot end op against the crossbar. It was, after 48 minutes, the first real opportunity from an Ajax attack. Jeff Stans put the fire out fairly quickly. Excelsior’s club top scorer shot high from close by. Gouriye was also unable to pass Cillessen from nearby.
The Rotterdam misses cleared the way for Van der Hoorn to save the day. Seven minutes before time, one minute after Coutinho had turned away a sharp header by Joël Veltman, the substitute made good. With the 0-1 goal, the spell was finally broken. Fortunately, it was to Ajax’s advantage. Four minutes later, Zivkovic determined the final score for Ajax’s last game, 0-2. All was well than ended well. Especially in terms of the result. In the end, Ajax ended the first half of the season with a smile.