The November 6, 2001 FC Utrecht – Ajax match will go down in the history books as their most spectacular meeting ever. After a match packed with remarkable moments and many, many goals, Ajax left the battlefield as the losing team. When the dust had cleared, the scoreboard read 6-4.
Volumes could have been written about the first half of the always charged meeting between these teams. Utrecht vs. Ajax had all of the ingredients for a memorable football thriller. In the opening minutes, Ajax had reason to both cheer and lament. Centre forward Siem de Jong exited in the early minutes with a muscle injury in his thigh. But his replacement, Dmitry Bulykin, brought the fully packed visitors’ stand and Ajax’s dug-out to its feet within four minutes of his entry: 0-1.
What played out in Stadion Galgenwaard after the early 0-1 defied every expectation. The Utrecht team put an end to a recent series of poor performances. Just last week, they lost a hopeless game to NEC, 1-3. The pressure on head coach Jan Wouters was becoming intense in the Domstad. Utrecht occupied a lowly fourteenth place in the rankings prior to their meeting with Ajax, a match that has been Match of the Year of decades in Utrecht.
On Wednesday, Ajax had been impressive in their 4-0 trouncing of Dinamo Zagreb in their UEFA Champions League game. Earlier this season, Ajax has been known to drop the ball in competition play following a European match. In Stadion Galgenwaard, the guests were all accounted for and present at kick off. The crazy match, with an even crazier score, was coloured by moments, mistakes, and coincidences.
Ajax didn’t enjoy their early lead for long. Nana Asare tied the game, seemingly out of nowhere, with an impressive long distance shot which went into the goal via Eyong Enoh’s leg. The fact that Toby Alderweireld needed to be substituted out directly after the 1-1 was typical of how this game went. The Belgian was feeling nauseous and passed the baton to André Ooijer.
Two minutes after the swap, FC put an end to Ajax’s dream start. After Jacob Mulenga didn’t score at first, Edouard Duplan did make good: 2-1. Ajax saw their lead melt into a deficit within twenty minutes. With the always lively crowd in Utrecht acting as a twelfth man, it was clear that this match wouldn’t be easy for the defending champions.
Last season, Ajax went down twice at the hands of the Utrecht team. The fact that top players like Kevin Strootman and Dries Mertens traded FC Utrecht for PSV seemed at first to work in Ajax’s favour. The Amsterdam chances to avenge last season’s double loss (3-0 in Utrecht last season) seemed within reach. Ajax played good football and exuded confidence, mainly earned in Champions League.
Substitutes Ooijer (2-2) and Bulykin (2-3) ensured that Ajax went into the break with the lead. Ooijer sent in Theo Janssen’s free kick from close by. The Russian Ajax player’s header – on a clean pass from the outside of Sulejmani’s foot – went in beautifully. Considering all of the blows, and no fewer than three goals from two Ajax substitutes, it seemed that the second half could hardly get any crazier.
The first ten minutes after the break showed that things could indeed get odder in the Domstad. FC Utrecht converted their 2-3 deficit into a 5-3 lead within five minutes. First, right back Daan Bovenberg scored at close range. Two minutes later, Mulenga escaped the offside trap and shot in, somewhat fortunately, past Kenneth Vermeer via Vertonghen. Four minutes later, the Ajax keeper made a mistake by sending the ball to Asare. The Ghanaian captain simply kicked the ball into the empty goal: 5-3. After a strong first half, with Ajax playing convincing football at times, a tie suddenly seemed like the best Frank de Boer’s team could hope for.
“At 5-3, I still thought we could turn it around”, said De Boer during the press conference. “After the break, we only made long passes. We defended badly today. But I also saw good things. We should have won. I really felt like we could make it through by playing our game.”
Christian Eriksen came through twenty minutes before time. On a Gregory van der Wiel pass, the Dane’s header went past Roberto Fernandez, 5-4. But the coveted tying goal didn’t come on this strange afternoon. In extra time, substitute Anouar Kali put the final nail in the coffin for Amsterdam. Vermeer was held back at a kick, and the former Ajax player shot the ball into the empty goal. Ajax once again lost costly points in the race to extend their title.
“At the end, I’m shocked at how we let this game get away from us”, said De Boer. “Especially after our good start. But we really defended badly today. And Vermeer didn’t have his best day today, either. But I’m satisfied with the progress he’s making. He’ll be back for the next match.”