Ajax showed two different faces in its home match against Roda JC. After a mediocre first half (0-1 down), Ajax sought, and found, redemption after the break. In a strong second half, the Amsterdam team waltzed over the Limburgers: 4-1. Substitute Lorenzo Ebecilio was key player, scoring a hat trick.
Frank de Boer made tactical choices beforehand. Partly due to illness (Dico Koppers) and injuries (too many to name), André Ooijer, Theo Janssen and Dmitry Bulykin all appeared in his starting line- up. Ooijer was the central man in the three man defence, while Janssen and Bulykin respectively started as left midfielder and centre forward. Christian Eriksen was tested as shadow centre forward in the four man midfield. The changes in the Ajax line-up compared to the victories against Manchester United and Excelsior, got a very poor grade in the first half.
In the first 45 minutes, nothing about Ajax suggested that they truly want to become champion this season. With a slow tempo and lack of creativity, they didn’t manage to make any inroads against Roda’s defensive wall. Harm van Veldhoven’s team often had eleven men chasing the ball. The Kerkrade natives had clearly learned from the pair of lost matches earlier this season, when Ajax was too strong for them both in competition (0-4) and cup tournament (2-4) games. Ajax simply had too much difficulty with the formation which just last week lost 0-2 to lowly De Graafschap. Van Veldhoven – the naturalised Belgian announced his departure this week in Kerkrade – missed heavyweights Rob Wielaart and Ruud Vormer.
In the first half, Miralem Sulejmani’s early departure was an additional disappointment. The Ajax player, who was playing his 150th match with Ajax today, was forced to leave the field after thirty minutes, injured. Lorenzo Ebecilio was his replacement. A meniscus injury is feared for the Serb. Sulejmani will be out for the next few weeks, in any case.
Five minutes later, Ajax was hit with a heavy blow. After Ebecilio lost the ball, it landed, via Mads Junker and Mitchell Donald, with Sanharib Malki. The Limburg team’s top scorer rounded out flawlessly: 0-1. Ajax’s ball possession percentage in the first half (59 per cent) contrasted painfully with the score at the break.
“Roda had time to build up, and our play was static”, said De Boer at the press conference afterwards. “We put more pressure on after halftime, because we wanted to play further out.” Referring to the goal against, and Ebecilio’s mistake leading up to it: “I had warned beforehand that we couldn’t afford any unnecessary loss of possession around the middle circle. That could be tough for our three defenders, against two Roda centre forwards. The way Roda transitioned was textbook: we got egg on our face.”
After the break Ajax fought its way back into the match meter by meter, second by second, and play by play. The Amsterdam team showed in the second half that they are a serious title contender. Roda keeper Mateusz Prus was put to work straight after the break on a shot by Ebecilio. The forward was looking to redeem himself, but more importantly, his team. After the Polish keeper had turned away his first attempt, Ebecilio left him hopeless in the 68th minute. Ebecilio redeemed his earlier, costly mistake by making good from long distance: 1-1. Hope flickered with Ajax that this match could end well for them.
Prus was put to the test again when he came face to face with Dmitry Bulykin, and De Jong, no fewer than three times. The goalie risked his health by snatching the ball right in front of Bulykin. De Jong’s attempts ended up on top of the goal, high above (change of direction) or wide. A new attempt from Bulykin was blocked.
In an eventful final fifteen minutes, everything was set right by the home team. Ajax seemed to have freed itself from negative energy that had been plaguing the team. Vurnon Anita took the ball at midfield, after which the multi-faceted and young player served Eriksen. Anita, who had cleverly come up, was able to tick in the rebound on Eriksen’s shot, which had been deflected by Prus, straight in: 2-1. In the final official minutes, Ebecilio scored via the crossbar: 3-1. In extra time, the winger sealed his hat trick. Ebecilio was sent in deep, and, after a sprint, left Bart Biemans behind him and defeated Prus as well.
“I’ve never seen a player score a hat trick with his weaker leg”, commented De Boer on his substitute’s feat with a smile. “We played much better in the second half. Lorenzo redeemed his mistake a hundred times over. Compliments to what he showed us today. We deserved to win.”
Later on Sunday, it would be seen how valuable the win against Roda JC would be. In Eindhoven, PSV and FC Twente face each other at 4.30p.m. Ajax will gain ground on at least one of its competitors for the title.
Keep watching Ajax TV for a summary of Ajax – Roda JC and reactions from Frank de Boer, Lorenzo Ebecilio and Vurnon Anita.