Ajax has earned a strong advantage for the return match at home next week thanks to a convincing result in the away game against the Belgian champion Anderlecht. A 0-3 win is especially good for the team’s self-confidence both for the Europa League return match, and for next week’s upcoming main attraction in the Eredivisie: PSV-Ajax.
Ten weeks have passed since Frank de Boer’s spectacular debut as Ajax’s coach in Milan (0-2 win). During this time, Ajax has consistently played according to De Boer’s vision. But there have also been matches that didn’t satisfy the 40 year old coach, such as the duels against FC Utrecht and Roda JC. But the coach believed that his team had learned from the match in Kerkrade, and he was right. In the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, Ajax showed that it can play outstanding football, although in truth everything went Ajax’s way, and the team is still on track to continue in European football in the same vein as their great performance in Milan.
In comparison to the Roda JC match, De Boer chose Gregory van der Wiel, available once again after his suspension against the team from Limburg despite suffering from a mild cold. Moreover, the 112 time international selected Daley Blind as left back. Blind has become a fixture under the new coach, and made his second European appearance roughly two years after his first, during the Slavia Prague match in December 2008. The surprising change was placing Siem de Jong in Demy de Zeeuw’s spot. “I wanted more power in midfield”, explained De Boer, who found it difficult to tell De Zeeuw beforehand that he wouldn’t be in the starting line-up. Since De Jong was brought to midfield, it was Mounir El Hamdaoui who was the centre forward, with Lorenzo Ebecilio and Miralem Sulejmani in charge of supplying him. An extra challenge for the team from Amsterdam was the fact that Anderlecht’s keeper, Silvio Proto, hadn’t been scored against since December.
The announcer paid special attention to the keepers, who, in his opinion, are among the best in Europe. This was apparent in the messy first half, which progressed at a break neck pace. Anderlecht transitioned very fast at midfield after losing possession, hoping to quickly find the creative players up front. This resulted in opportunities: for Lukaku, who played the ball too far ahead, allowing Stekelenburg to interfere; for Suarez, who was in fact launched by Alderweireld, but he also stumbled on the keeper and Kanu, who saw Suarez’s pass blocked by Van der Wiel.
Ajax retaliated. Eriksen had freed up El Hamdaoui, but the Moroccan striker’s attempt went wide. “We seemed nervous at the beginning”, said a surprised De Boer afterwards. “There was no reason to be so sloppy. After about 20, 25 minutes, we got a better grip on the game.” After a half hour, Ajax’s attacks became sharper, and Sulejmani had a great opportunity in the 31st minute, but Pronto was there to make the save. Two minutes later, Ajax took the lead. Alderweireld headed the ball on an excellent corner taken by Eriksen, and made good in his home country: 0-1. One minute later, Anderlecht seemed poised to tie the game when former Ajax player Mbark Boussoufa sent the ball in the direction of the upper corner. But Stekelenburg protected his team’s lead with a great save.
In the second half, Ajax played toward their own fans, as they mostly do in the ArenA. Anderlecht was the team applying the most pressure in the first five minutes, looking for a tying goal. But after Wasilewski overshot a simple penalty kick, Anderlecht seemed resigned and Ajax was able to increase its lead in the 59th minute. Alderweireld played a role once again, with a beautiful pass to the outstanding Eriksen, who treated the fans to a 0-2 score only days after his 19th birthday.
Anderlecht didn’t recover from the blow of the missed penalty, and went down for the count. Not even ten minutes later, El Hamdaoui, on an opening pass from Eriksen, showed that keeping a clean sheet in the Jupiler Pro League is a different story than doing the same in the European competition by making the score 0-3. With this result in mind, Ajax can finish it off in the ArenA next week. A spot with the last sixteen in the Europa League is within reach. De Boer: “We need to play like we did in the second half. We need to apply pressure, play our positions well when we have possession, and go for the goal. You don’t need to blow it open, that’s not what we do. But if we all put on the pressure, then we should be able to post a good result wherever we go.”