Ajax suffers damage in race for title

Ajax suffers damage in race for title

Ajax sacrificed three costly points in FC Twente’s sold out Grolsche Veste stadium. The team from Amsterdam lacked the creativity that they needed in their game, and had no reply to Bryan Ruiz’s header goal: 1-0. Ajax’s hopes in the title race were thus damaged. League leader Twente, and challenger PSV were able to reinforce their stronghold on the top spots.

From an empty Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb to the packed, energetic Grolsche Veste in Enschede. From Dinamo Zagreb in the Europa League to FC Twente in the familiar Eredivisie. De transition from an international situation to a national one wasn’t without difficulties for Ajax.

Gabri made his return to Martin Jol’s starting team against FC Twente. The Spanish midfielder had been kept on the sidelines by the technical staff during the muscle match up against the Croatians. Gabri, Demy de Zeeuw and Eyong Enoh, formed a solid trio at midfield. Siem de Jong – Gabri’s replacement in Zagreb – remained on the sidelines for this match. The league leader’s starting team remained unchanged, therefore largely keeping their built up momentum.

But a change came early in Ajax’s line-up, specifically; the man who had just recently won a secure place on the squad left the field early in the game. For Marko Pantelic, the duel with the “Tukkers” lasted only sixteen minutes. The Serbian player likely suffered a hamstring tear or pull, and was replaced by Miralem Sulejmani. The severity of his injury remains to be seen. Ajax was forced to make the necessary tactical adjustments early on.

The stakes were high in this edition of FC Twente – Ajax. Knowing that title challenger PSV had handily disposed of ADO Den Haag (1-5), Ajax needed to come out strong against their adversary. The team from Twente lead Ajax by three points before the match.

The team from Amsterdam had to perform, while Twente had the luxury of not needing to – this was the expectation before the match. The League’s front runner could – thanks to their lead – sit back and wait for opportunities. However, it was the team who had the most points to their name who took most of the initiatives from the start. It was as if Steve McClaren’s team needed to make up lost ground against their opponent.

Ajax had a difficult time, especially in the fist half, but they survived a few threats from the opponents. Trainer McClaren’s team’s excellent position play caused their guests to be one step behind the ball – and their adversary – more often than they would have liked. Despite this, things were far from hopeless for Ajax, and the team created a few good opportunities. But the scales of the game seemed slightly tipped in the home team’s favour.

Luis Suarez came closest to scoring for Ajax in the opening phase, but the Uruguayan’s shot hit the crossbar. Less than fifteen minutes later, the Ajax captain toed the ball into the side net of ex Ajax player Sander Borschker’s goal.

The “Tukkers” were rewarded for their hard work soon after halftime. Two minutes after play resumed, Bryan Ruiz brought his team into the lead with a header. The Costa Rican player, who will meet Luis Suarez twice in the coming ten days in the race for a World Cup spot, took advantage after Theo Janssen’s sharp free kick, and scored with a header at close range, 1-0.

“Today’s match was clearly decided by details and timing”, said Jol at the press conference, half an hour after Vink had blown the final whistle. The Ajax coach was referring to, among others, the moment when the only goal was scored. “We did well in the first half, but it would have been more useful if we had scored. A stupid foul resulted in (Janssen’s) free kick. But still, we were the stronger team during that phase of the game”.

The game got progressively more challenging for Ajax after the score was opened. Once they were a goal down, they had little choice than to go full on attack. Exactly during this critical part of the game, Ajax was once again plagued by injury. Demy de Zeeuw had to retire from the game with, most likely, a pulled muscle. The offensively oriented Siem de Jong was his substitute.

A few minutes later, Gabri, just recently back after a long injury, was substituted for Dennis Rommendahl. Even with fresh reinforcements, Jol’s team had a hard time getting their teeth into the game. A long distance attempt from Vurnon Anita (which went high), and a short scrimmage in front of the Twente goal, after a Rommendahl initiative, made up the few Ajax opportunities in the closing minutes of the game. These slim pickings didn’t deliver the fiercely desired goal for the visitors, much less a point. FC Twente’s solid defence created an extremely tough barrier to break. With the lead in their pocket, the home team had the luxury of being able to focus on their defence.

“Offensively, we did everything we could to repair the damage. But if we’d won a point today, it would have been rightly deserved, I think”, said Jol in his assessment. He has faith in Ajax’s chances for the remaining competition matches. “We’ve faced this opponent three times on their turf. Hopefully, they’ll drop some points here and there. Then, when we face them at home, we’ll be in for an exciting match.”

A good week in Europe, where Ajax are now virtually through to the next round, was has now ended with a disappointing loss. Ajax are six points behind the leaders and four behind second placed PSV. Jol, with Amsterdam flair said: “I’m not so impressed by six points”.