AZ's coach Co Adriaanse, who preceded Ronald Koeman as Ajax's coach, said it best after Ajax had defeated AZ 3-1 in Alkmaar: ,,This result is very disappointing for AZ. I cannot blame my players for lack of quality or motivation.'' Ronald Koeman agreed. ,,This match was much more difficult for us than the result may suggest.''
Ajax were under almost constant pressure in Alkmaar. Adriaanse knew that with the busy European schedule Ajax would be conditionally, physically and mentally inferior to AZ this afternoon. Defenders Wijker and Opdam played one-on-one against Van der Vaart and Litmanen, and from the first minute AZ came on strong.
After only five minutes veteran Barry van Galen had AZ's first great chance. His effort was stopped by the excellent goalkeeper Bogdan Lobont. ,,We had the most possession in the first 20 to 25 minutes, but AZ was more dangerous'', Koeman admitted.
,,It must have been quite a blow for AZ that we scored'', Koeman said. Jari Litmanen, who according to the home side fouled his opponent, headed the ball to Van der Vaart, who passed it back to Litmanen, ran into the box and saw Litmanen give the return pass. Van der Vaart, Ajax's striker on the afternoon, finished nicely.
AZ was stronger during the first half, but did not succeed in converting the many opportunities. Either the home side's efforts lacked precision or Bogdan Lobont kept his team in the game. Shortly before halftime Andy van der Meyde had a chance to finish AZ early. The winger, who again played from the left side, failed to shoot the ball over 'keeper Zwarthoed.
The second half was only three minutes old when Jari Litmanen converted a cross by Van der Vaart with a beautiful volley. ,,I expected us to be able to put Ajax under even more pressure'', Adriaanse said. ,,But after that quick goal the game was effectively over.'' ,,AZ deserved more, but we finished our chances well'', Ronald Koeman said.
Andy van der Meyde then ended what was left of AZ's hopes. The forward crossed midfield and struck from 20 metres out. The ball bounced on the bumpy pitch past Zwarthoed: 0-3. Koeman brought on three substitutes. Victor Sikora replaced Steven Pienaar on the right wing, Petri Pasanen came on for Tomás Galásek and crowd favourite Richard Witschge was Litmanen's replacement. With a beautiful chip from distance Witschge provided the highlight of the match. Unfortunately the ball bounced off the crossbar.
Michael Buskermolen got a goal back for AZ, but his 85th-minute close-range strike came too late to alter the outcome of the game.
,,We did what we had to do'', said a relieved Koeman. ,,This win did not come easy. The past few weeks have been very hard on us.''