Ajax has remained without a win in its third away game of the season. After last weekend’s tie in Heerenveen and the loss at AZ before that, coach Frank de Boer’s team had to content itself with a 1-1 tie in Groningen. Lasse Schöne brought Ajax into the lead during the first half, but substitute Género Zeefuik tied the game for FC Groningen, 1-1.
A test. That would be the best way to describe Groningen – Ajax. Because the reigning national champion was forced to play for the first time without the three very valuable players who were the subject of so much speculation at the end of last season. What would be left if Siem de Jong, Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld would leave? De Jong announced his intention to stay, but has been out of circulation for the past two weeks with a collapsed lung. Eriksen definitively moved to England last week, and Toby Alderweireld wasn’t in the Ajax selection anymore this Sunday, either.
In this first match without the Belgian defender, coach Frank de Boer elected for a centre consisting of Niklas Moisander (captain and at the centre-right) and Stefano Denswil. At midfield, Thulani Serero tried to compensate for the loss of Eriksen, and De Boer made a change out in front, too. On the left, Tobias Sana got the nod over Viktor Fischer, who has had an unlucky start to this season.
After a probing, low paced beginning, during which both teams managed to be very sloppy with their passes, the opening goal was scored out of the blue in the eighth minute. Lasse Schöne’s long distance shot hit the mark into the far corner; 0-1. Considering a significant difference in possession (36 vs. 64 per cent in favour of Ajax), De Boer’s team took a well-deserved win.
The game almost became tied in the 38th minute after Groningen transitioned very fast after Sigthórsson had collided with keeper Bizot. This resulted in no more than a corner kick for the home team. The match sputtered along at a (very) slow pace towards the halftime whistle.
The second half started with no changes for Ajax’s line-up, and one for FC Groningen’s: Zeefuik for Kirm. Zeefuik needed seven minutes to pose the first serious threat. But keeper Vermeer anticipated the deep ball very well, and prevented the substitute from getting possession with an impressive header. This proved to be the start of a phase during which Groningen started to take more initiatives. That nearly resulted in a tying goal by Botteghin in the 56th minute, but Vermeer’s outstanding reflex prevented that from happening.
After an hour of play, Ajax seemed to be escaping the pressure with good plays from Bojan on the left and the right. But the national champion needed to be vigilant for Groningen’s spurs. After seventy minutes, De Boer swapped centre forwards. Sigthórsson, who had hardly been drawn into the game, made way for Danny Hoesen. He had to witness Zeefuik scoring the tying goal fifteen minutes before the end when Vermeer let go of the ball. “We lacked the alertness to do whatever it took to prevent a goal against. Kenneth may have let go, but Groningen should never have been allowed to make that header”, regretted De Boer during the press conference. Shortly before the tying goal, Ajax had had an opportunity to bring their lead to 0-2. But Bojan elected not to pass to Schöne, who was in scoring position, and went for his own success. This didn’t work out and Groningen scored the 1-1 goal soon afterwards.
There were no holds barred in the last ten minutes. Ajax did everything it could in order not to squander points away from home, after leaving a total of five points in Alkmaar (3-2) and Heerenveen (2-2). This resulted in spectacular moments. In the 81st minute, Kieftenbeld played the ball back badly to his keeper, and Hoesen nearly scored the 1-2 goal. Former Ajax player Bizot prevented this from happening. On the other side, Vermeer made an outstanding save on a great shot from Zivkovic.
In the closing phase, De Boer brought in Viktor Fischer and Lucas Andersen in an attempt to squeeze three points out of the lively Euroborg. And it almost worked when Hoesen was through and passed to Poulsen. The most experienced of the five Danes on the field shot wide. Ajax could also have left Groningen without any points at all, since Groningen forward Kostic shot onto the outside of the post from a good position in extra time. “This was totally unnecessary”, said coach Frank de Boer afterwards. “We could have pulled the trigger on several occasions. But it was 1-1. It didn’t need to happen like that, because we were in complete control.”