Ajax qualified on Wednesday for the Cup tournament semi finals with a narrow win over NEC (3-2). It wasn’t an easy match in the Amsterdam ArenA. Marin Jol: “We showed stamina, and the crowd definitely motivated us to win.”
Although the match had a relatively easygoing start, it soon teetered on the brink of the abyss, but finally ended with Ajax smiling – albeit an exhausted smile, and relief that the evening hadn’t ended otherwise. The team from Amsterdam came dangerously close to elimination during this quarter final match against NEC. But Ajax showed backbone, and fought their way past the nine remaining NEC players.
Ajax didn’t have an especially hard time in the beginning, but their opponent NEC were no pushovers, either. As the minutes went by, the team from Amsterdam seemed to gain ground. They certainly didn’t lack opportunities. After Dennis Rommendahl could have – or should have – given his team the lead (his shot was blocked), Gregory van der Wiel saw his attempt sail over. Miralem Sulejmani and Marko Pantelic both worked hard, but had difficulties breaking though the Nijmegen defence. For example, Sulejmani lost the ball at a critical moment, while Pantelic was unlucky several times in his finish. The Serbian Ajax players didn’t get the breaks they needed.
Besides Pantelic, Demy de Zeeuw and Maarten Stekelenburg made their return to Martin Jol’s team against NEC. Left footed Anita, after Sunday’s 1-0 win against AZ, started on the bench, with Urby Emanuelson replacing him as left back. In Luis Suarez’s absence, due to suspension, Demy de Zeeuw wore the captain’s band.
A familiar face made an appearance in the ArenA, on the NEC squad. Jeffrey Sarpong was loaned out from Ajax to Nijmegen during the winter break. Clad in a blue away jersey, with number 9 on his back, the midfielder made a return to familiar territory. In fact, Sarpong was one of the most threatening players on Wiljan Vloet’s team, especially during the first half. In addition to an attempt which ended in Stekelenburg’s hands, the home team got lucky again on a low shot from the opponent’s number 9. The solid kick went just past the wrong side (for NEC) of the post. Ajax also had their hands full with forward Björn Vleminckx during the first half.
De Zeeuw gave Ajax the lead after 43 minutes. The captain took excellent advantage of Dennis Rommendahl’s set up. The Danish player got around Jeroen Heubach and made a pass to De Zeeuw from the back line. Thanks to his strong footwork, the midfielder lifted the ball over Gabor Babos from close by: 1-0. The opening goal illustrated Ajax’s growing dominance. The only reason the match didn’t end earlier is simply that Ajax kept missing their chances.
“We played well in the first half”, said coach Martin Jol after the match. “Our play in the second half was more predictable. NEC was able to react on time to our initiatives, although we continued to apply pressure. It’s strange that we couldn’t translate our dominance into goals, especially since we had enough good chances.”
Before the first hour was over, the team from Gelderland got another setback. Ten minutes after Jeroen Heubach received his first yellow card, he received his second one. The defender made hand contact in a duel with Rommendahl. You couldn’t argue with referee Richard Liesveld’s decision, although it was a heavy handed one.
The ten NEC players seemed defeated after this second setback. Substitute Christian Eriksen (coming in for Ismaïl Aissati) could have handed out the final blow to NEC, and ensured Ajax of the next round Cup game during his home debut. The up and coming talent with number 51 didn’t receive Rommendahl’s pass properly. Ex Ajax player Mitchell Burgzorg and his forward Vleminckx breathed new life into the blue clad brigade from Nijmegen. Seven minutes before the end of official time, the Belgian’s header hit the mark, on a pass from substitute Burgzorg. Jol’s response was to bring in Vurnon Anita for Sulejmani.
The tying goal pushed the game into unexpected overtime after ninety minutes. Substitute Rens van Eijden brought his ten man strong team to a sensational lead, with a header three minutes into extra time. The defender’s header, from Sarpong’s free kick, was a clean goal. A Cup upset was in the air. Ajax’s quest for their necessary tying goal lasted until the 112th minute. Across the field, on a pass from De Zeeuw, Toby Alderweireld sent his own header straight into the goal: 2-2. Midfielder Siem de Jong finally brought Ajax home with a precise header, three minutes after the tying goal, on a free kick from De Zeeuw. NEC couldn’t recover. In the tumultuous ArenA, Ajax reached the Cup semi finals.
“The tying goal was a damper”, commented Jol about Velminckx’s goal. “In the end, we were able to set the game straight with two headers from two free kicks. We showed stamina, and the crowd definitely motivated us to win.”
For Sarpong, the Cup evening ended on two sour notes. One minute before 2-2, the loaned out Ajax player received his second yellow card, thus a red. From the sidelines, Sarpong had to watch his team go under.