Ajax resumed competition play on Sunday with a convincing win (4-1) against Excelsior. Following midweek European football commitments or cup matches, Ajax has often squandered points in competition matches. In Stadion Woudestein, an end was put to that bad habit.
They went from Manchester United to Excelsior, and from imposing Old Trafford to intimate Woudestein. It would be interesting to see how Ajax would manage the transition from UEFA Europa League to Eredivisie. With a 2-1 win in Manchester, Ajax gained confidence on Thursday evening. If Ajax won to win this lunchtime game against Excelsior (the last five Ajax matches to kick off at 12.30p.m. ended in defeat four times, and one tie), the competition would heat up. With PSV-Feyenoord and AZ-SC Heerenveen to be played later in the afternoon, a new opportunity presented itself to come out of this round of play as the winner.
“I think that this match will be tougher than the one against Manchester United”, said Frank de Boer beforehand. Ajax’s coach was referring to the smaller field – the smallest one in the Eredivise – and the artificial turf. A small advantage was the fact that experienced Excelsior players Leen van Stelsen and Joost Broerse were suspended. “These are different circumstances. Everything depends on our approach. If things go well, we should go home with three points.” The players received the message loud and clear. In the same configuration as Ajax started with against Manchester United, with a recovered Dmitry Bulykin and Theo Janssen on the bench, there wasn’t a problem with dedication.
A series of opportunities which came from the numeric advantage was converted into a goal after 22 minutes by Aras Özbiliz. The right winger received a good pass from Ricardo van Rhijn on his left boot: 0-1. Van Rhijn wasn’t as smooth four minutes later when he ticked Tim Vincken, which earned him a penalty for the contact from referee Pol van Boekel. Excelsior captain Edwin de Graaf took the shot and saw it turned away by Kenneth Vermeer. The guests had their own penalty when centre forward Rangele Janga dove too enthusiastically after an alleged contact with Vermeer. Boekel punished this with a yellow card for the forward.
“The ball reacts differently on this surface”, said De Boer afterwards, looking back on the two penalties, among other things. “It’s hard to give the ball the right speed on this surface, or judge the speed. That’s how you get into dicey situations. Excelsior anticipated that better.”
Ajax seemed poised to take care of the Rotterdam team before the break. On a Christian Eriksen corner, Siem de Jong’s header made good in the last seconds of the first half. With a 0-2 lead before the break, Ajax seemed invincible. At least, assuming the same passion and concentration remained after the break. But the job wasn’t done yet. After threats from the Rotterdam team via Janga (header) and Vincken (Vermeer save), Özbiliz could have served his team well had his long range shot not ended up on the crossbar. Toby Alderweireld saw his long distance shot end up on keeper Wesley de Ruiter’s fists.
Instead of a third Ajax goal, it was the Eredivisie’s last placed team which found its groove. Jurgen Mattheij sent in the 1-2 goal on a header from a corner. A nerve wracking end phase began, which created tension in Ajax’s game. “In the first half, our position playing kept getting better”, continued De Boer. “A man was consistently free at midfield. After the break, and especially at the 1-2, we should have been more careful. You know that Koppers is injured and someone needs to cover his man. It’s especially bitter when it’s Koppers’ opponent Mattheij who scored.”
With Ismaïl Aissati coming in for the injured Koppers, and Lorenzo Ebecilio for Nicolás Lodeiro, three points needed to be secured. André Ooijer came in later (for Özbiliz) to reinforce defence. The final score was determined in the final minutes. After Ebecilio just missed Eriksen’s pass, De Jong rounded off an almost identical pass from the Dane flawlessly. De Jong scored the 1-3 goal. The goal was a compliment to Ajax’s strong midfield. In extra time, Jan Vertonghen made his way through Excelsior’s defence with childish simplicity. The captain finished off his play with a shot into the right corner.
Ajax’s 1-4 win will help its goal balance. “After the 1-2, we were never in trouble”, said De Boer. “The spaces kept getting bigger. The final score could have been bigger. But, after a tough match against Manchester United, I’m happy with this.”