Ajax’s start in the KNVB Cup Tournament 2013-2014 was a difficult one. The Amsterdam team didn’t manage put itself out of FC Volendam’s reach until the second half of extra time: 4-2. Gerrie Mühren’s ghost floated through the Amsterdam ArenA on Wednesday evening. His nephew Robert Mühren, with his two goals against, was a true thorn in the home team’s side.
At the outset, a cup match against a Jupiler League team like FC Volendam should offer the perfect opportunity to build up confidence. At the very least, it would a chance to wash away the bitter aftertaste of two 4-0 losses. However the cup match against FC Volendam would turn out, one thing was certain. The game would be played in memory of – and, at times of good technical playing, in the spirit of - one of the most gentlemanly Ajax players ever. Gerrie Mühren, the ultimate team player from Ajax’s golden era in the seventies, when the team took the world by storm. Ajax’s first cup game of the season brought two clubs, linked by Gerrie Mühren who died last week at the age of 67, together. As if the midfielder had personally orchestrated the outcome of the draw.
With one minute of silence beforehand, the mourning bands on the arms of the Ajax players, and the banners gracefully painted with Mühren’s portrait by the core fans; Gerrie Mühren (and, with him, former player Arend van der Wel) were honoured in the half-full ArenA. The Ajax player with the velvet-like technique received the posthumous recognition he deserved. The fact that a true blooded Mühren plays with the Volendam team (nephew Robert; the only Volendam player wearing a mourning band) brought extra symbolism to the evening.
A very different Ajax team appeared at kick-off of the ‘Mühren match’, compared to last Sunday’s competition match against PSV. The KNVB Cup Tournament offers opportunities to new, ‘fresh’ Ajax players. Frank de Boer rotated and paired Mike van der Hoorn and Niklas Moisander as the central duo. Ajax’s steady cup goalie, Jasper Cillessen, saw, among others, centre forward Danny Hoesen and right back Ruben Ligeon in the line-up with him. Ajax’s attacking wings were taken over by Lucas Andersen (left) and Lasse Schöne. Bojan Krkic, Kolbeinn Sigthórsson and Nicolai Boilesen were not included in the match selection.
The eleven Amsterdam players on the field played a concentrated and alert first half. Siem de Jong pulled the trigger twice in the first twenty minutes with a hard header, and a flying shot. The captain came close to scoring the first goal, but not close enough. The same can be said of Schöne; the Dane saw his beautiful free kick get saved by keeper Theo Timmermans.
Before the first half hour was up, the Amsterdam team was rewarded for its hard work. Andersen finished a one touch with Hoesen as the sharp shooter: 1-0. The Amsterdam team saw their dominance on field rewarded with a small lead at halftime. The half-full ArenA, in which the second ring of seats remained virtually empty, saw De Jong almost bring his team into a bigger lead with a header right before the break. Once again: close, but not close enough. Thulani Serero’s injury (bruise on his left shoulder, Christian Poulsen substituted) was one of the few downsides of the first half.
Did the Volendam team simply cast aside all hesitation in the second half? Or had the home team’s game simply gone astray? From his cloud high above the ArenA, Gerrie Mühren must have been shaking his head as he watched Ajax’s descent. The visitors did what they had also done in the first half: systematically defend in front of their own goal, and hope for a breakaway. The sloppiness on Ajax’s side provided the Volendam team with additional confidence and strength. Ajax was duly warned six minutes into the second half. A pass from Robert Mühren to Brandley Kuwas was intercepted just in time by alert defender Daley Blind.
The Amsterdam team would have done better to take this warning seriously. Halfhearted football resulted in the visitors scoring a not-underserved tying goal. After Damien Menzo had hit the crossbar, the ball landed with Mühren, via Kuwas. The attacking midfielder made good from nearby: 1-1. After missed attempts by De Jong (header) and Schöne (shot onto Timmermans), the home team counted their blessings in Cillessen’s saves. The 1-1 score earned Ajax – now playing with Lesly de Sa and Viktor Fischer – and Volendam some overtime. Overtime acted as something of a boost for the visitors.
The Ajax ship seemed ready to sink in overtime with Mühren struck again in overtime. After another series of errors on the part of the home team’s defense, the ‘nephew’ struck gold again: 1-2. After Mühren’s name had featured prominently twice on the stadium screens on this cup evening, the deceased Ajax player was constantly on everyone’s mind. This was on top of an already bizarre Amsterdam – Volendam cup football evening.
The necessary answer followed quickly via Schöne. The Ajax player made good on a free kick: 2-2. Hoesen, and Schöne again, brought Ajax into a safe haven deep into overtime’s second half. Centre forward Hoesen scored on a pivot, after an assist from Fischer and preparation work from Van der Hoorn. Schöne scored on a pass from De Sa and a cunning play by Fischer.
It took a long time, but Ajax made things right in the end. But stocking up on confidence wasn’t one of Ajax’s achievements in this first cup match. The honour paid to Mühren, and former player Arend van der Wel, rescued the evening’s atmosphere somewhat.
“Misfortune always breeds insecurity in our team”, said Frank de Boer, looking back on the, at times, disappointing cup match. “When we became sloppier after the break, Volendam got more and more opportunities. We're fighting for our form in this phase. It’s only with hard work that you emerge from a crisis of form. In the end, it’s our supporters who carried us through the evening.”