Ajax has had a terrible start to the second half of the season. Four days after an easy win in the make-up match against Feyenoord, Frank de Boer’s team suffered a dramatic loss to kick off the second half of the season. Just like earlier this season in Amsterdam, FC Utrecht, this time playing at home, was too strong for Ajax: 3-0.
Important tests, is how Jan Vertonghen,last Friday, described the week awaiting Ajax, with the away match against FC Utrecht and NAC Breda, and the midweek cup match against NAC. At FC Utrecht, the first of these tests ended very badly. For the second time in a few months, Ajax lost to Utrecht. The team from the Domstad has cost Ajax six points this season. It’s going to be a formidable job to make up these points during the rest of the competition.
De Boer chose for the same line-up as last Wednesday against Feyenoord for this match in Stadion Galgenwaard. That meant that Daley Blind was on left back once again. Urby Emanuelson was absent in the Domstad. The dyed in the wool Ajax player is Milan-bound. According to de Boer, the transfer is as good as complete, save for a few details.
“We would have preferred to keep him, but Urby made it clear that he was ready to leave. I would have rather seen him stay for another six months. Urby is a top Ajax player, and I wish him all the best with AC Milan. We’re going to do our best to make sure he can say a proper goodbye to the club and the supporters. We need to solve the issues created by his departure internally. Firstly, with Blind. It’s up to him to show us that he’s ready for this.” Emanuelson’s absence freed up a spot on the squad for midfielder Rodney Sneijder. The 19 year old Ajax player (on the bench with number 43), Wesley’s brother, has been in Ajax’s youth training program since 2000, and had a taste of the real work ahead in his hometown.
Away matches against FC Utrecht have historically been difficult for Ajax, and this proved true again on Sunday. Although three of the last four visits to the Galgenwaard have been successful, this was no guarantee for success in Utrecht. Furthermore, last season Ajax lost 2-0, and was also defeated earlier this season in Amsterdam against Utrecht, 1-2.
For the first half, Utrecht was definitely the master of the house. For the first fifteen minutes, Ajax survived the storm unleashed upon them by their hosts. Nana Asare, Dries Mertens en Frank Demouge each tested Maarten Stekelenburg. Ajax’s first shot didn’t come until the eighteenth minute, when Siem de Jong sent the ball just over Utrecht’s goal. This was typical of how Ajax and Utrecht each played. “During the break, I asked the players if the match was too early for them. It looked like a few of them were still asleep”, said Frank de Boer afterwards, who admitted to having fully lost his temper during the break. And rightfully so.
Midway through the first half, Utrecht’s continuous pressure resulted in a goal. Soon after Demouge’s header hit the post, Utrecht made good during the next attack. Edouard Duplan was set up for a shot, unhindered. The French player didn’t hesitate at all and sent the ball from the edge of the box into the upper corner: 1-0. And the suffering had just begun. Two minutes after 1-0, Duplan also scored the second goal: 2-0. Utrecht’s number 7 was once again left free to master the ball. From a measured pass from Kevin Strootman, he sent the second goal of the afternoon in with a header: 2-0. A free kick by Christian Eriksen was Ajax’s only reply during the first forty five minutes. The Dane’s shot went over. But Utrecht squeezed out an even better opportunity at the eleventh hour. Demouge almost had Utrecht’s third goal with another header, but Maarten Stekelenburg’s sharp reflex kept the damage at bay.
Ajax played better during the second half, but the deficit proved to be too much of a strain. Soon after play resumed, Sulejmani got a good opportunity. From a prime position, the Serb shot the ball wide. That marked the best opportunity of the second half. The rest of the half was played out by an Utrecht who didn’t need to try anymore, and an Ajax who no longer could. This resulted in a flat second half, which received new life eight minutes before the end. Ismo Vorstermans increased Utrecht’s joy, and Ajax’s dismay. The forward made it 3-0 on a pass from Michael Silberbauer. De Boer: “This is a good learning process for our young team. Getting here is ‘easy’ for young players, but staying is much harder. That was clear this afternoon. They can’t always play a 6,5. A few of them played a 4 this afternoon. And then, against Utrecht at the top of their game, you fall flat on your face.”
To add insult to injury came substitute Dario Cvitanich’s injury, which limited his return to the Dutch fields to seven minutes. The Argentinian left the field with a calf injury and is expected be out of commission for some time. This cost de Boer a substitute, and cost Ajax another forward. In addition to the suspended Luis Suarez and the injured Mounir El Hamdaoui, de Boer will need to be creative leading up to the double header against NAC. Although he holds out hope for El Hamdaoui: “He trained on Saturday for about 75%. Hopefully he’ll be able to make the cup match this Thursday.”
Ajax’s club leadership expressed their satisfaction at the behaviour of the 1200 Ajax fans who made the trip to Utrecht, taking into account the extensive publicity beforehand about the rivalry between the supporters of the two teams.