Ajax made things difficult for itself on Sunday in the Koning Willem II Stadion. After a dream start and a 0-2 lead, Willem II was still in the running for an upset for a long time. Despite the goal intensive opening phase, it wasn’t until late in the game that defender Niklas Moisander put his team on the right track. Ajax can therefore still end this calendar year on a good note. The race for the title remains incredibly exciting.
In Tilburg, Frank de Boer selected Danny Hoesen as his staring centre forward. Lasse Schöne acted as midfield controller on Sunday. Christian Poulsen – another midfielder with controlling attributes – was a surprise inclusion in the match selection. On Friday, the experienced Dane seemed physically fit, but not yet a candidate for a spot in the selection in the game against last placed Willem II.
In the first sixteen minutes especially, a true spectacle unfolded, sometimes with slightly absurd incidents. The shot from the second line, with which Siem de Jong scored the first goal into the near corner, gave Ajax a no-nonsense and well-deserved lead: 0-1. The Ajax captain had just scored the hundredth Ajax goal in an away match against Willem II. The game seemed to be squared away early on when Danny Hoesen shot the ball three minutes later into a goal which had been abandoned by keeper David Meul: 0-2.
Instead of continuing to control the match calmly, Ajax let the Tricolours come back. Two minutes after Hoesen’s goal, Arélien Joachim slid the ball past Kenneth Vermeer. The ease with which the Willem II centre forward was able to strike betrayed the complete lack of attention on the part of Ajax’s defense. Tilburg hope flared suddenly, under the sky which had already turned dark. Siem de Jong came close to setting things straight again, but saw his attempt turned away at the goal line.
It was thus a complete surprise when Genaro Snijders moved past Ajax’s last line with ease, after a searing cross-pass from Danny Guijt. Snijders got to the ball more quickly than Vermeer, who had been storming out to it: 2-2. A sheer miracle seemed to be taking place in the Koning Willem II Stadion, in the second to last round of play before the winter break.
“We need to realise that you should never give away a 0-2 lead”, said De Boer critically afterwards. “We went into the break, disappointed, at 2-2. Although we did realize that we would still be getting opportunities in the second half.”
Ajax should have been warned by the Tilburg team’s recent series of games. Coach Jurgen Streppel’s Brabant team has been undefeated in the last three weeks, with the highlight being a tie (0-0) at AZ. The reigning national champion let their adversary stay in the match for a long time. This away game against Willem II undoubtedly cost Ajax valuable resources. So soon before a week during which away games against FC Groningen (cup match on Thursday) and FC Utrecht – the last competition match of the year – a match that would have been squared away early would have been more than welcome. “A good result against Willem II and Utrecht can give us a boost for the second half of the season”, De Boer had warned two days earlier in order to avoid any unnecessary loss of points.
Willem II seemed poised to pull off a true stunt. Shortly after the break, the Tilburg team even came close to scoring a third goal, but a pass from Joachim to the free Snijder was intercepted at the last minute. A third goal from the Tricolours would have turned this game, which for all intents and purposes was played under the conditions of an evening game, completely on its head. Left winger Viktor Fischer seemed ready to crown his slalom across the field with a goal, but this goal melted away right before the goal line. The slow tempo and sloppiness that marked Ajax’s play after the break (mainly) didn’t make the hunt for the desperately desired 2-3 goal any simpler.
Niklas Moisander is the one who finally scored the third, liberating Ajax goal twenty minutes before the end. The Fin stuck in cold blood on an overshot Christian Eriksen corner. After this, Poulsen saw his status get upgraded from bench warmer to field player; the experienced player came in for Hoesen as an extra lock on the door. De Boer’s decision to bring Poulsen in after all in Brabant turned out to be the right one.
The win was no longer threatened, especially not when substitute Jody Lukoki struck in the closing minutes: 2-4. The goal stumbled via both posts into the goal. Thus the second to last competition match of the year, during which Ajax mainly made things difficult for itself, got a happy end after all.
“We made things unnecessarily difficult for ourselves”, said De Boer in Tilburg, but with a satisfied undertone. Thanks to squandered points by Vitesse (2-2 against RKC) and PSV (1-1 against NEC), Ajax is now in third place. Leader PSV and Twente are still only one point ahead. “How can it be that we made it so tough for ourselves? Sharpness and inspiration. You need to lock up the game more easily. Fortunately we have three points.”