Ajax rewarded in de Kuip

Ajax posted a very sweet Classic win on Sunday. The Amsterdam team struggled but, thanks to some good fortune and to Jasper Cillessen’s superlative keeping, reached the finish line victors in a heavily disputed 0-1 game. Ricardo van Rhijn scored the winning goal in de Kuip.

De Boer rewarded Niki Zimling for his strong turn as a substitute against Paris Saint-Germain with a starting spot in the Classic. The experienced Dane formed a midfield team with Davy Klaassen and Thulani Serero. Ajax had to make do without the injured Lasse Schöne in Rotterdam. The Dane has been suffering from a groin injury since the last Champions League match. This cleared the way for Anwar El Ghazi in terms of offense. The Rotterdammer began on the right against his former club; El Ghazi was a youth player in Varkenoord for two years, and he also played for Sparta. Left, next to forward Kolbeinn Sigthórsson, started Lucas Anderson.

The 59th edition of Feyenoord – Ajax was also a true keeper’s duel. Only three weeks after his quick transfer to de Kuip, Kenneth Vermeer faced his former club. The Amsterdam native fought a match within a match against Jasper Cillessen, the man who literally drove him out of the ArenA. It was leading up to the match between the Eredivisie’s number five (Ajax) and fourteen (Feyenoord) who could get the upper hand in this prestigious duel beforehand. Going into this Classic, the odds were stacked against Vermeer – with Ajax, he’d never won in Rotterdam (5 losses, 1 tie). The former Ajax player saw his first three duels as a Feyenoord players end in loss as well.

Midweek, Europea League title holder Sevilla had been too strong in the second European club tournament. On the other hand, Ajax had gained considerable confidence from its own Champions League draw at home against PSG: 1-1. The loss of the multifunctional Schöne was a disappointment. The home team was also at a disadvantage without the injured Lex Immers. Veteran Khalid Boulahrouz has been out of circulation for quite some time in cursed coach Fred Rutten’s team. Of all Feyenoorders, it must have been the coach himself who most longed for a win to turn the tide on a meager and fruitless period.

The statistics were in the Amsterdam team’s advantage beforehand. Historically, Ajax has won more often in Rotterdam than Feyenoord has (20 Amsterdam wins vs 18 Rotterdam ones). Of the last 21 Classics played in Rotterdam, Ajax has only lost one. John Guidetti lifted Feyenoord to a 4-2 win in January 2012 with his hat trick. The barren start to the season that the Rotterdam team is experiencing, coupled with the unfavourable statistics, made Feyenoord long for a Classic win more than ever.

That win, and the desperately needed turning of the tide, seemed ever further away. The first half was tumultuous. This latest Classic was memorable from the developments in the first eleven minutes, even considering the illustrious history of Classics. Feyenoord opened strongly and played fully on attack. In the first four minutes, Jordy Clasie (shot) and Ruben Schaken (header) had hit the crossbar above Cillessen. It appeared to be only a matter of time before the opening Rotterdam goal would come. But it was Ajax who struck. Ricardo van Rhijn pivoted his free kick, from twenty meters, out of Kenneth Vermeer’s reach, into the Feyenoord goal: 0-1.

The Rotterdam team continued to press and was the better team in the first half. It was illustrative that Anwar El Ghazi was the first Ajax player to get near the Rotterdam goal, and not until after 26 minutes had passed. The majority of the attacks streamed towards the Ajax goal. Ajax was fortunate when centre forward Colin Kazim-Richards came face to face with Cillessen. The Turkish Feyenoorder’s attempt went wide. All of the Ajax spectators (staff, board and management in de Kuip and fans watching on television) must have breathed a sigh of relief. Ajax was still in the lead at halftime.

After the break, Feyenoord continued in the same vein. Ajax struggled to reach Vermeer. With Lerin Duarte, who was playing a bit more towards the back, as a substitute for Andersen, the lead should have been consolidated, or even better, increased. Later, Nick Viergever reinforced midfield, coming in for the battle-weary Zimling. Unfortunately, this didn’t deliver the desired result. Rutten made a switch in the interest of the offense by substituting his defender Terence Kongolo by forward Mitchell Te Vrede. De Boer reacted by bringing in fresh and rested forward Ricardo Kishna for El Ghazi.

Cillessen kept his club afloat with a world-class save on a header from Jean-Paul Boëtius. The Ajax keeper was also on top of a dangerous volley from substitute Tonny Vilhena. Vermeer barely saw any more action. In the end, Feyenoord didn’t get they had wanted so badly: the (well-deserved) tying goal. Especially since Cillessen made two more brilliant saves in extra time. Ajax thus stood its ground in the tumultuous Kuip. The current national champions reached the finish line of the Classic with the sweet taste of victory in their mouths.