It took 3,5 years, but on Sunday, Ajax finally came home from Alkmaar with three points. After a comfortable 0-2 lead at halftime, thanks to goals by Siem de Jong and Daley Blind, Ajax still managed to turn it into a nail-biting game. In the end, the league leader escaped with a 2-3 win, and the current champion thus continues to maintain the lead on its closest competitors after this round.
Vitesse and PSV had already won their matches in this 27th round, so Ajax didn’t actually start this provincial derby with AZ as number one, but as number two. A win was therefore essential against the troubled AZ, who found itself in fourteenth place in the rankings at the start of this game.
But for two Ajax players, this game was more than just one of the eight final matches that Ajax has left to play this season. Niklas Moisander and Kolbeinn Sigthórsson were returning to Alkmaar for the first time since they left AZ for Ajax. For the centre forward, the reunion lasted less than an hour. Soon after the break, Frank de Boer substituted Sigthórsson for Danny Hoesen. “Kolbeinn still can’t play 90 minutes. And I wasn’t so satisfied with him, so I pulled him out a bit sooner. I’m happy about that, because Hoesen did a good job”, said De Boer afterwards.
It was clear from the first fifteen minutes that AZ had made little to no adjustment to its playing style compared to the cup match against Ajax in the ArenA. The Amsterdam team lost that match 0-3. While Ajax tried patiently to put the ball past keeper Esteban with combination play, AZ mostly sent long balls ahead towards swift wing players Beerens or Berghuis. The Amsterdam team’s combination play won over the English variation in the first half.
Siem de Jong opened the score in the twentieth minute after Toby Alderweireld sent him a splitting pass. The captain, who was playing with a blue respect captain’s band on Sunday for the ‘united by football’ campaign, made good with his shot: 0-1. Two minutes later, the lead was doubled when Daley Blind didn’t think, but took action. He scored with his right foot, 0-2. This lead could have been quickly built upon, but Viktor Fischer and De Jong were both unsuccessful in finishing. AZ made attempts via Beerens and Lam, but Kenneth Vermeer kept his goal clean.
But he didn’t succeed to do this after the break. AZ cashed in on a corner, which arose from a situation in which the ball didn’t seem to go completely over the back line. The Alkmaar team took full advantage of the somewhat controversial corner. From a corner kick, Henriksen worked the ball past the goal line: 1-2. The fans in the sold out AFAS stadium had their faith renewed, and AZ perked up as well. “AZ had the upper hand then”, analyzed De Boer. “Fortunately, we scored the 1-3 goal. We got our confidence back then; and it should then have become 1-4 or 1-5.”
But that didn’t happen. The match had been completely opened up, and that’s how it remained. Ajax scored in the 59th minute on a free kick from De Jong which had changed direction: 1-3. Everything seemed to be fine. After Schöne found substitute Hoesen in the 68th minute, a fourth Amsterdam goal seemed to be in the works. But the attempt by the Limburg native – who was substituting very well - went slightly wide.
But as much as Ajax seemed to dominate and AZ seemed to be broken, AZ scored out of the blue fifteen minutes before the end. Top shooter Jozy Altidore escaped his guards, paved a long way towards the Ajax goal, and shot the ball past Vermeer: 2-3. The closing minutes were exciting.
Christian Eriksen almost brought the win home, but the Dane saw his beautiful lob intercepted by Esteban. It remained tense for Ajax both on the field and in the visitors’ stands. The injured Davy Klaassen was in attendance in the visitors’ stands; the forward watched the game among the Ajax fans. But it all nearly went wrong when Viergever, celebrating an anniversary, seemed to have the tying goal at his feet in his one hundredth Eredivisie game.
Exactly how tense things were became apparent when the entire Ajax bench started getting involved with the timekeeping. But after three minutes of extra time, referee Kuipers whistled to signal the end of the game. Ajax had won and reclaimed the top position with seven finals to go. “You know that when you go to AZ, it’s usually going to be a difficult match. And it was this time, too”, said De Boer. “At 0-2, we were waiting for the 0-3 goal to come, not a goal against. Fortunately they didn’t score a tying goal. I’m satisfied. We played well for sixty per cent of the game, and for forty per cent we weren’t as good.” The Ajax coach complimented the host team: “AZ showed that they aren’t occupying the spot that they deserve to be in.”
Keep watching Ajax TVV for interviews with goal scorers Siem de Jong and Daley Blind, plus coach Frank de Boer.