Sometimes, defensive play can deliver a result that feels like a victory. On Sunday, Roda JC had come to the Amsterdam ArenA with the principle mission to defend. And Adil Ramzi’s counter goal gave the Limburg team one point. Daley Blind scored his first official Ajax goal. With this tie (1-1), left an opportunity on the table to gain ground on leader PSV, and also left with a feeling that was not unlike a hangover.
After PSV’s loss of points against Vitesse (2-2, Saturday), Ajax’s mission was crystal clear. A win against bottom-feeder Roda JC would bring their deficit against the Eindhoven based leader down to one point. Coach Frank de Boer showed his confidence in acquisition Isaac Cuenca by including him in the squad. The loaned out player from FC Barcelona started on Sunday’s mission to gain ground on PSV in the position of right winger.
In terms of popularity, Cuenca has had a kick start as an Ajax player. When the line-up was announced, there was resounding applause when the name of the 21 year old player, making his debut, was read. Ajax’s offensive line was rounded off by centre forward Siem de Jong and left winger Viktor Fischer. One week after an easy 0-3 win against VVV-Venlo, Niklas Moisander celebrated his return to Frank de Boer’s squad. The Fin had been replaced by outstanding youngster Stefano Denswil in Venlo (who was left off of the selection this time). The central defensive duo Moisander – Alderweireld was honourably restored for this match against Roda JC.
Just like in the game against VVV-Venlo, Ajax should have easily completed its mission against Roda JC – that was the thought which must have been in the minds of many Ajax fans beforehand. By the 22nd round of play in the ever unpredictable Eredivisie, the Limburg team occupied fifteenth place. VVV and Roda JC are competing this season to stay alive in the Netherlands’ highest football stage. “I’ve never seen Ajax play as well as they did in the first fifteen minutes”, Frank de Boer complimented his team afterwards. “We were very dominant then and we created many opportunities. But the ball just wouldn’t go in.”
Despite Ajax’s dominance, which was expressed in the many Ajax opportunities and more possession, the Kerkrade natives showed their resilience. Ruud Brood’s team either waited patiently for a counter in the meantime, or escaped unscathed from the home team’s many scoring opportunities. New international Daley Blind slid a tremendous opportunity very close to Filip Kurto’s goal too far over the crossbar. Christian Eriksen saw his attempt, via a Danilo attempt, lob over the goal. These were only two of the many opportunities that Ajax created in the first 35 minutes. “It then became clear that this would be a match during which a goal just wouldn’t come”, continued the Ajax coach.
Ajax was nevertheless suffering from a hangover as they retreated to the locker rooms after Serdar Gözübüyük’s halftime whistle. On a pass from Guus Hupperts, Christian Poulsen, while defending, sent the ball unintentionally to Adil Ramzi. The sly, experienced football fox promptly made good. The 0-1 halftime score was at sharp odds with what had been happening on the field in terms in terms of dominance and the relative number of scoring opportunities. Thanks to missed opportunities by Lasse Schöne (header onto the post) De Jong (long) and Eriksen (free kick wide, via Kurto), Ajax’s small hangover was a fact.
In the locker room, the Amsterdam team must have thought back to November 25, 2012. During that Roda JC – Ajax match, the Limburg team had enjoyed a 1-0 lead for a long time. Late goals by Eriksen and Schöne eventually gave the red and white team a win that afternoon. In this wintery, sometimes icy Ajax ArenA, Ajax went on a mission to erase their deficit faster than they had back then in Kerkrade. At Roda JC, Sanharib Malki’s relegation to the bench was remarkable, to say the least. The top scorer (ten goals already) watched the duel in the Amsterdam ArenA from the bench for 84 minutes.
“I need to compliment my team, they continued to believe until the end”, continued De Boer. “Of course we can do better.” Nine minutes after play resumed, the tying goal had occurred. Left back (but more often appeared as an extra left winger) Blind scored his first official Ajax 1 goal at close range. In preparations, Cuenca had been his greatest and most valuable asset. The forward set up the attack, after which Cuenca rounded off a combination with Siem de Jong with a pass to Blind. The scoring Ajax player is living a true football dream this week. After his midweek debut on the Dutch national team against Italy, Blind junior scored his first real Ajax goal. With this achievement, the wing defender has earned a place in Ajax’s club history.
Cuenca – who made a driven, but sometimes unfortunate impression – was substituted minutes later to loud applause. The wing specialist had made his greatest contribution at Blind’s tying goal. De Boer had said beforehand that his acquisition would play for ‘an hour at most’. On Thursday, the key first UEFA Europa League match against Steaua Bucharest awaits. De Boer will need all of his Ajax players against the Romanians, and indeed for the entire month of February, with its hectic playing schedule.
Ajax remained in the driver’s seat after the tying goal, but unfortunately this didn’t result in a successful mission. De Boer and the ArenA’s 51.088 spectators watched in disappointment as Ajax’s much-needed second goal remained elusive. Toby Alderweireld (ball ticked over by Kurto), De Jong (long) and substitute Kolbeinn Sigthórsson (crossbar) came close, but not close enough. Ajax thus was unable to cash in on PSV’s blunder. They remain three points behind the leader.