On Thursday evening, Ajax qualified for the KNVB Cup quarterfinals. Interim coach Frank de Boer’s home debut was crowned with a 1-0 win against AZ in the Amsterdam ArenA. Miralem Sulejmani’s winning goal ensured that De Boer’s third match in charge of the team ended with a victory.
The battery of photographers surrounding De Boer after the match was just as big as before it. The resulting pictures were like night and day. The focussed look from before the match was exchanged for a relaxed, happy face afterwards. And, thanks to his third straight victory, with good reason. Thanks to this win against AZ, Ajax can continue to compete on all fronts.
In his debut at home, Frank De Boer chose to stick with the same line-up as ten days ago against Vitesse. So Lorenzo Ebecilio had a spot once again at front left, Siem de Jong was on point on forward with Christian Eriksen behind him, and Miralem Sulejmani to his right. Captain Stijn Schaars was absent on AZ’s side due to a knee injury. Otherwise, coach Gert-Jan Verbeek went with the trusted players who have ensured AZ’s good first half of the season so far. It was worth noting that Romero’s blue keeper shirt was bought at Decathlon right before kick-off. The kits which the Argentinian had were not contrasting enough, thus the sport store next to the ArenA came in handy.
Watched by 30.000 supporters, Ajax started out well. De Boer’s team created several good opportunities in the first fifteen minutes. Ebelico was to be reckoned with in his very first match in the ArenA. With two sharp shots, he was the most dangerous man in the starting phase.
Midway through the first half, Ajax came close to the first goal. De Jong had the goal at his feel, but his shot hit the crossbar. Aside from a few meagre shots from AZ, Ajax played the better game. Their reward came when Miralem Sulejmani scored a beautiful goal. On a pass from De Zeeuw, the Serb lifted the ball over keeper Romero, putting Ajax into a 1-0 lead just at the right time.
During the break and at the start of the second half, Jeroen Verhoeven was warming up. Ajax’s backup keeper needed to be ready to start, in case Maarten Stekelenburg should need to leave early (groin injury). The captain, who was keeping his seventieth match of 2010 against AZ (both for Ajax and the Dutch team), was able to finish the match, and started his well- earned winter break injury free.
The 1-0 stand ensured that Ajax needed to stay sharp after the break and be vigilant for AZ’s attacks. Just as they had against Vitesse, Ajax lacked the freeing second goal, and needed to make sure that no crucial mistakes were made in the back. During the last twenty minutes, things eased up for Ajax as AZ player Pontus Wernbloom received a red card for his foul on Ebecilio.
With ten men, AZ had a difficult time keeping Ajax away from the goal. The club from Alkmaar needed several infractions to eliminate the danger. Especially when Verbeek chose to replace a defender with an extra forward, it was all hands on deck for the 2009 champion. A series of opportunities for Ajax didn’t yield a 2-0 score. AZ briefly hoped to go into overtime, but substitute Sigthorsson’s dive didn’t fool referee Janssen. A last attempt by Maarten Martens was saved by Stekelenburg, and Ajax crossed the finish line with 1-0.
“We’ve seen an Ajax which played an aggressive and dominant game”, said a satisfied De Boer afterwards. “Next to that, our position play was good, and we forced AZ to play long. All in all, we earned this win tonight.”