On Sunday in the Ijsseldelta Stadion, Ajax wrote another chapter on the topic of unnecessary loss of points. One week after at 1-1 tie against FC Utrecht, the exact same score appeared on the PEC Zwolle scoreboard. Ajax thus failed to fully capitalize on title contenders Vitesse and FC Twente’s missteps.
Just as it had been one week ago in Utrecht, Ajax’s mission was crystal clear. After the loss of points suffered by both Vitesse (tie Friday) and FC Twente (loss on Saturday), the current national champion had another chance to gain ground on their fellow title contenders. A win would assure a 7 point difference between Ajax and Twente (who still have a game in hand), Feyenoord and Vitesse. Those were the calculations beforehand. Middle-of-the-pack PEC Zwolle would need to be disposed of. The Amsterdam team was duly warned beforehand; earlier this season, things had nearly gone amok in the ArenA against the former leader. Ajax fortunately posted a win at home against PEC. The Zwolle club thus won a midweek match against FC Utrecht, the opponent who had kept Ajax to a tie just last week.
In terms of line-up, Ajax began in Zwolle with the same starting line-up as on Thursday night’s game in the ArenA. Frank de Boer selected the exact same starting line-up as for the midweek duel against FC Groningen. After the last minute competition win in Amsterdam (2-1, thanks to Kolbeinn Sigthórsson’s late winning goal), another win against PEC needed to follow. Last Thursday’s match winner started off on the bench in the Ijsselstad. Siem de Jong was once again the starting centre forward. Kenneth Vermeer and Jairo Riedewald stood in respectively for the injured Jasper Cillessen and Nicolai Boilesen, who was given a well-earned break. The Dane was a spectator in Zwolle; Boilesen supported his team from the box of honour.
Midway through the duel in the Ijsseldelta Stadion – where, among other things, extra time and substitutions are sponsored - centre forward De Jong was the most talked-about player. Goal scorer Davy Klaassen – the midfielder helped Ajax take the lead 7 minutes into the game – was less talked-about. The hard header with which Klaassen found the goal was material worthy of discussion. With the early lead in the pocket, things seemed to (still) be going well for the visitors.
But instead of focusing on the positive, it was mostly the negative that was emphasized during halftime. It was mostly about the colossal opportunities missed by the captain. Fifteen minutes after Klaassen’s 0-1 goal, the free and clear De Jong sent the ball over from nearby. Nine minutes later, the captain had another opportunity to make good. De Jong didn’t make good enough contact with the ball, after which Diederick Boer had an easy time to take it away. After half an hour, the score might have been 0-3.
These missed shots would probably not have been discussed so much had Guyon Fernandez not helped PEC Zwolle tie the game. The Zwolle centre forward helped his team tie the game in the 36th minute. The fact that the 1-1 score was completely at odds with the relative scoring opportunities each team had had mattered little to the home team. The ease with which the outstanding midfielder Mateusz Klich launched his centre forward was impressive. Fernandez easily escaped an offside trap from the Amsterdam defense, after which the ball was masterfully eased past Vermeer. Ajax had been the master until Fernandez’ goal; the tying goal gave the game an odd turn.
“We didn’t manage to make the difference before the break”, said Fran de Boer with disappointment afterwards. “When that doesn’t happen, you get egg on your face. A moment of inattention brought Fernandez in front of Vermeer. And then we headed into halftime with a 1-1 score.” About De Jong: “Siem clearly isn’t in the same form he was in before his injury. That will only come back by playing. It's in the final stages. In that respect, I’m pleased that he played 90 minutes today. Siem remains incredibly important for us. You can never accuse him of not working hard enough.”
The turn of events in the match game the home team extra courage and strength. Ajax never fully recovered from the blow. Before the break, PEC had been playing with guts and the courage of a lion. Soon after saves by Boer on attempts from Lasse Schöne and De Jong, Ajax miraculously escaped going under. Substitute and former Ajax player Fred Benson shot the ball onto the post, after which Jesper Drost shot the rebound onto the crossbar. At that point, Viktor Fischer was a newcomer in De Boer’s team. After the most spectacular Zwolle plays, Lerin Duarte and Sigthórsson came in, for Serero and Riedewald respectively.
“We were sloppy, while PEC was well-organized”, continued De Boer on his team’s play after the tying goal. About PEC’s chances on the post and crossbar: “If there are 21 men on one half of the field, and you have lots of space in your back, you’ll walk into a knife once in a while. And with Zwolle, it was a big knife sometimes.”
A deciding and – considering the competitors’ loss of points – extra valuable winning Ajax goal never came. It spoke volumes that Ajax didn’t even have a decent opportunity in the last fifteen minutes. Ajax seemed to be playing against itself in the closing phase. PEC Zwolle didn’t give an inch under the Amsterdam pressure. The celebrations afterwards were painful, too. The Zwolle natives celebrated the tie as if it had been a victory.
Ajax’s players retreated, disappointed. In Zwolle, the leader left a golden opportunity on the table to gain more ground on its direct competitors for the title. The lead on Twente, Feyenoord and Vitesse is now at five points. “In the end, we should be glad that it was 1-1”, said De Boer.