Ajax showed on Sunday, in their match against NEC, that they still can create plenty of scoring opportunities, and possess a strong midfield and solid defence. The 1-4 victory in Nijmegen, however, wasn’t sufficient to dethrone leader FC Twente from first place on the last day of competition. Despite stellar statistics (points, goals), Ajax ended the 2009-2010 season in second place.
On this cold and wet last competition day in Nijmegen, Ajax did what they needed to do. Determine the game early, to keep pressure on FC Twente. That’s all that the second placed team could do. Luis Suarez’s opening goal was a good start. The Uruguayan finished perfectly (curving ball over Gabor Babos), and benefitted from Demy de Zeeuw’s good preparation work. The midfielder was unhindered as he stormed into the box, and made a pass to Ajax’s top scorer: 0-1.
This lead, coupled with the still scoreless game in Breda, briefly made Ajax the Eredivisie’s virtual leader. Eight minutes later, FC Twente recovered first place, thanks to Bryan Ruiz’goal which gave them a 0-1 lead on NAC.
Ajax shrugged off the disappointing news from Breda, and pressed on. With former Ajax player Klaas Jan Huntelaar in the crowd (after playing on Saturday with AC Milan, he took a flight immediately to be in Nijmegen), De Zeeuw made it 0-2. After Suarez mastered the ball from his own defence, it landed, via Urby Emanuelson, in De Zeeuw’s possession. The liaison’s shot went in from close range. Before halftime, Marko Pantelic contributed to Ajax’s goal count. The Serbian player ended his short slalom through the NEC defence with a surprising, hard shot: 0-3.
But all of these goals at this point only contributed to fattening up Ajax’s goal balance. Since Twente, playing against ten opponents (after Feher’s red card), were still in the lead, Ajax remained in second place. But they kept hoping for a helping hand from Breda. The cold, wet conditions seemed to favour Ajax in a different way – these were the same weather conditions as in 2002, when they won the national title in an equally cold, grey Nijmegen.
Ajax didn’t have much to fear from a weak NEC. The strong words beforehand from a few former Twente players at NEC didn’t convert into action. Ajax weren’t hindered. The jeering whistles from the home crowd, aimed at their red and green clad team as they headed to the dressing room at halftime, spoke volumes. It was only after the break that Maarten Stekelenburg was tested. Saïdi Ntibazonkiza managed to get past him with a header during the closing minutes.
With Suarez’s 0-4 (tapped in, after Emanuelson’s wide pass), the pressure on the leader was higher. FC Twente’s 0-2 score received loud cheers from the NEC supporters. Jol: “Strange. Being down 0-4, you’d think they’d be ashamed.” The Ajax players and supporters in the sold out visitors’ stand understood the bitter truth. Despite the 1-4 win, the title race was over. The team with the most goals scored, and the least goals against, was leaving the competition with empty hands after 34 games. It’s the harsh reality facing the team who had wasted valuable points in the first half of the season.
“It’s been an extremely exciting race’, said Jol afterwards during the press conference. “We didn’t make it, in the end. It’s stunning. Strange, or whatever you want to call it. But there’s one club that has one point more than Ajax, and it’s all about the points, not the goal balance. That’s sports. We were able to get used to the idea (of second place), but there’s always hope. In general, everyone loses points. Except Twente. It went well today. But after the red card happened in Breda, the writing was on the wall.”
The disappointment of title missed by just one point can be eased a little bit on Thursday, when Ajax meets Feyenoord at 6.30pm for the second final match of the KNVB Cup. In de Kuip in Rotterdam, Ajax will defend their 2-0 lead. A third championship will have to wait at least until next season. The ’09- ’10 season may potentially end with a cup win, which would – somewhat – ease the pain.
‘I have to compliment the guys”, said Jol. “If you win that many points, and score that many goals, you deserve the kudos. And, hopefully, our disappointment will be gone on Thursday.”