On Sunday in the Amsterdam ArenA, Ajax held on to its chances to win the title. What they didn’t manage to do for 85 minutes was achieved twice in the closing minutes. Davy Klaassen and Arek Milik, from a penalty kick, brought Ajax from a 0-2 deficit to a 2-2 draw. PSV now has the same number of points, but Ajax has a better goal balance.
Ajax knew what needed to be done on Sunday. PSV had won their Saturday evening match at Roda JC by 2-0, and taken over first place. Coach Frank de Boer’s team could regain top position with either a win or a draw against Utrecht. A different formation from what had been used the past two weeks would be needed.
Last week, De Boer had somewhat regretted using a 4-3-3 formation against Cambuur Leeuwaarden. So, for this match against FC Utrecht, who often plays with two centre forwards, he went for 3-4-3. In practice, this meant that Mitchell Dijks lost his starting spot to Daley Sinkgraven. Considering that Utrecht mostly played up front with three players - Nacer Barazite, Willem Janssen and Sébastien Haller – the defenders, Bazoer and Gudelj, needed to find the right task distribution.
After just 36 second, FC Utrecht had its first big opportunity to score the opening goal, but Veltman prevented the worst from happening. From a corner, Ajax was able to transition very quickly and Klaassen was unlucky that his pass to Milik was just too hard. The tone had been set. It was going to be an exciting afternoon. But nobody could predict just how exciting it would turn out to be.
Ajax seemed to take a 1-0 lead in the fifteenth minute after the ball landed with Younes, who sent it into the goal. But since he had been offside just prior to that, referee Makkelie disqualified the goal at his linesman’s signal. Shortly after that, El Ghazi, who had a starting spot at Schöne’s expense, sent a header wide of the goal after a free kick by Gudelj, and Gudelj himself took to the goal – in vain – under fire.
Utrecht was lurking for a quick transition and was almost successful in the 35th minute. With only Bazoer and Gudelj at the back, Ajax escaped unscathed, and after that, the visitors, who will play in the cup final next week, were threatening a few more times. Although it was an exciting fight, Ajax could have been a bit cleaner. The good fight and excitement made up for a lot, but not for everything. Ajax was treated to some whistles and jeers at halftime.
In the second half, FC Utrecht took the lead. Davy Klaassen wanted to bounce the ball to Bazoer, but the ball went out too far. Utrecht, showing less willpower than in the first half, took full advantage and Nacer Barazite scored the 0-1 goal in the 56th minute. This goal against was a blow for Ajax. The tying goal was on Milik’s head in the 63rd minute, but the striker, who has been so successful this season, found keeper Filip Benarek in his way.
With twenty minutes to go, De Boer made some substitutions. Amin Younes relinquished his spot to Vaclav Cerny. In one of his first plays, the Czech set up a one – two with Bazoer. He received the ball back and shot on goal. Unfortunately, the shot hit the outside of the post. Ten minutes later, there was a ray of hope for Ajax. Kenny Tete made his return to the first team, coming in for Bazoer, who was having an unfortunate game. That was Van der Hoorn’s sign to move up two lines. The former Utrecht player was, together with Milik, meant to change the score. Cillessen tried to motivate the crowd in front of his own goal. But in the 86th minute, he was left without a hope when faced with a shot from substitute Patrick Joosten, 0-2.
The stadium started to empty out. But people returned quickly. In the 86th minute, Davy Klaassen, after striker Van der Hoorn played the ball back, sent a beautiful hard shot full of frustration into the goal. Three minutes later, Makkelie placed the ball on the spot. With that once in a lifetime opportunity under extreme tension, Milik knew what to do. He scored, 2-2! Thanks to the two late goals, Ajax remains in first place with as many points as PSV, but a better goal balance. With three games remaining, the race for the title remains nail-biting.