Ajax had to play one more match before the winter break. The team from Amsterdam was longing for a vacation, with almost a dozen players out with injuries and tired from five months of peak performance. Excelsior tried to 'hurt Ajax', as coach Adri Koster said, but an early goal from Zlatan and a red card for Excelsior player Buijs made that Ajax won relatively easy in rainy Rotterdam: 0-2.
,,The win is what is most important'', coach Ronald Koeman said afterwards. ,,We came to get three points, that's all.'' Under normal circumstances it would have been surprising that Ajax would be happy with a small victory against the newcomer in the Eredivisie. But with a full squad of injured players, such as key players Van der Vaart, Litmanen, Chivu and Trabelsi, and the efforts of the past five months draining the team's energy reserves, Ajax had enough reason to look forward to the winter break and it could afford to more or less go through the motions against Excelsior.
Ajax were hoping to decide the match quickly, and the team got a great boost from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the striker-in-form the past few weeks. After only two minutes the Swede opened the score with a nice strike from middle distance. After the good start, Ajax loosened their grip on Excelsior, who refused to be discouraged by the early deficit. ,,They got better'', Koeman agreed, ,,but except for two chances they did not make it too difficult for us.''
Nourdin Boukhari should have decided the match after fourteen minutes, when the left winger got the ball in the rebound of a Zlatan shot, but failed to score in a wide-open goal.
Excelsior's last chance went up in smoke, when defender Danny Buijs was sent off in the 38th minute for a hard foul from behind on Boukhari. ,,Then we lost the initiative completely'', Excelsior coach Koster said. ,,We tried to hurt Ajax by playing one-on-one, because we knew they were tired. But after the red card that was not possible anymore.''
Yet Ajax failed to translate the numerical advantage into goals in the remainder of the first half. ,,Defensively we were alright'', Koeman thought. ,,But up front we lacked precision. Today I can understand that. We are tired.''
The lack of precision was illustrated by the hard working Boukhari just before halftime. Nigel de Jong released a shot, that was stopped by goalkeeper Malkowski. Again the ball ended up right in front of Boukhari, who missed before an open goal.
In the second half it was almost only Ajax who had the ball and attacked, although it did not lead to any great chances directly. Until Andy van der Meyde's corner kick went to Petri Pasanen, who headed the ball in after 51 minutes. The match had been decided and Ajax could play out the time comfortably.
Even with three substitutions for Ajax - Wamberto, Stefano Seedorf en Mido replaced Boukhari, Witschge en Zlatan - nothing changed in Rotterdam, where the wet pitch made good football impossible.
,,We could have done better in attack'' Koeman said. ,,But it is fine like this. We can go into the winter break with our heads held high.''
The coach declared after the match that he was happy with Ajax's first half of the season. ,,We can be satisfied, the group has made progress. We have been able to deal with all the injuries, partly because the young players have developed quickly. And the older players have done well too. What can be improved, is finishing the chances. We often need too many opportunities to decide a match. That means we have to play at full power for 90 minutes most of the games. We are paying the price for that now. But the results are good. we are still in the race for the championship and we have reached the second round of the Champions League. The only negative was losing to PSV, but the competition is not decided now. The result of NAC - Feyenoord (1-1) is important, because we keep a distance from the number three'', Koeman said.