Ajax is just one win away from its thirtieth national title. Thanks to a 1-2 victory in Heerenveen, Ajax has the chance to decide the championship in two weeks in the Amsterdam ArenA. In a head to head battle with leader FC Twente, it remains to be seen who will be crowned champion on the last day of play. In contrast to earlier meetings, Ajax holds the cards this time.
Frank de Boer’s birthday isn’t until May 15th, but two weeks before his 41st, de Boer aged a few years in Friesland on Sunday afternoon. With Ajax, he experienced a bone chilling, exciting afternoon which fortunately ended well. Like a cat with nine lives, Ajax posted the win in Lenstra Stadium. The victory brings Ajax into the pole position for the championship. If Ajax defeats FC Twente in two weeks, the club will be champion. But first, the cup final awaits Ajax next Sunday. Twente will be the opponent in that duel as well, making the double a possibility for both Ajax and Twente.
The fact that Heerenveen had nothing to gain didn’t show. The home team went all out in their last home game of the season, to go out victorious and entertain the home crowd. Ajax considered itself lucky that the role of the suspended Ouassim Assaidi was limited to before the match, when he was honoured as player of the season before kick-off. Had the dangerous forward been in the line-up, Ajax would have had a tougher afternoon in Friesland than they did.
Frank de Boer chose to put Siem de Jong in the most forward position. This cost Mounir El Hamdaoui a spot in the starting line-up, and granted Demy de Zeeuw a spot on the squad, as he stepped into the midfield position vacated by De Jong. “I told Mounir on Thursday. Of course he wasn’t happy, but he’s professional and well trained. There also wasn’t a place as a substitute for him because I chose for different players in this match.”
Fear struck the heart of Ajax in the nineteenth minute. Mika Väyrynen saw Kenneth Vermeer come out too far from his goal, and passed Ajax’s keeper from far with a volley. Vermeer, running back, managed to touch the ball, but couldn’t stop the home team from taking a 1-0 lead. A setback for Vermeer and Ajax, especially since the keeper had made two outstanding saves earlier on a dangerous corner kick from the Fries team. The home team’s happiness at Väyrynen’s goal was short lived. Within a minute, Miralem Sulejmani brought his team even with Heerenveen. On a Christian Eriksen pass, the Serb scored the all-important tying goal in his former employer’s stadium: 1-1. This was to Vermeer’s relief, who saw the goal against being nullified.
In the rest of the first half, Ajax had had luck on their side a few more times. Michel Breuer and Philip Haglund (right before the break) had two great chances with headers, while Roy Beerens (good intervention Boilesen) came close to a second Fries goal before half time. Ajax’s most dangerous reply was a shot from Eriksen. The Dane shot the ball over his country mate Stuhr Ellegaard’s goal from close by in the 37th minute.
Ajax came out of the dressing room like a thunderbolt after the break. The half time score on other fields (FC Twente and PSV both leading) made it crystal clear that a win was essential in order to keep the championship dream alive. A quick goal was the best thing that could happen to Ajax. Under Siem de Jong’s lead, Ajax immediately headed for Heerenveen’s goal, and met with success. De Jong passed to Eriksen, who knew exactly what to do with it. Under the watchful eye of the crowd in the visitor’s stand, he brought Ajax into the lead in the Abe Lenstra Stadium: 1-2. This was also the moment that Ajax virtually took hold of their title chances.
Eriksen’s goal gave Ajax confidence, but no rest. Just as in the first half, Heerenveen were regularly threatening, appearing often in front of Vermeer's goal. Fortunately for Ajax, nothing materialised of these threats, but these moments all added up and made for an exciting half, in which Ajax stayed on top by pulling out all the stops. As Ajax hadn’t scored a third goal, Heerenveen kept going for the tying one. First, shortly after the 1-2, Vertonghen, in a moment of inattention, let goal scorer Väyrynen out of his sight. Fortunately, the captain caught himself and fixed his mistake.
Fifteen minutes before time, the Belgian saved Ajax once again when he headed the ball from the line. Vermeer also saved Ajax several times in the second half. The keeper made an excellent save on Väyrynen’s attempt to score his second goal of the afternoon. Right back Gouweleeuw came closest to scoring Heerenveen’s second goal twelve minutes before the end, but to Ajax’s relief, the defender’s hard shot hit the post. Ajax had several good chances in the second half, but Heerenveen remained dangerous until the end.
Referee Braamhaar’s final whistle was a great relief. “It was a crazy, fun match, which could just as well have ended up 6-6”, said De Boer afterwards. “The crowd was the big winner this afternoon.” Heerenveen coach Ron Jans agreed somewhat with his Ajax colleague, but came to a different conclusion. “Ajax is the big winner, especially as they can finish Twente in two days.” It would be the ultimate birthday gift for De Boer.