Ajax coach Frank de Boer emphasized this with his team during the winter break: every match of the second half of the season should be approached as if it were a final. Only then would Ajax have a shot at another title. His players executed this to the letter against FC Groningen. Ajax celebrated its first win with main sponsor Ziggo on its jerseys by a 2-0 margin, although the second half proved to be tough.
The winter break usually awakens optimism with football clubs. During the holidays, and the following training camp in a sunny location, worries tend to fade to the background. At the same time, grand plans are made for a successful second half of the season. This was the case for Ajax in Qatar. Under ideal circumstances, De Boer led his selection. Ajax filled up on confidence with a 2-0 friendly win against Schalke 04.
The only downside was Joël Veltman’s hamstring injury. The defender will be out for at least one more month and was replaced by Mike van der Hoorn in Groningen. It was the only change that De Boer made compared to the Schalke 04 match. The Amsterdam coach expressed his confidence in Van der Hoorn prior to the Groningen match. Van der Hoorn indeed can look back on a successful match.
After just under a month of rest, Ajax came out of the starting blocks with some difficulty. Former Ajax player Jarchinio Antonia had a great opportunity after three minutes, but the visitors’ centre forward shot over. Ajax drew a collective sigh of relief and slowly came into their rhythm. Groningen, as expected, withdrew somewhat and let Ajax take the lead.
Between the tenth and twentieth minute, Ajax experienced a great phase. Ricardo Kishna, who got the nod from De Boer over Anwar El Ghazi, was the author. The winger made a great play in the thirteenth minute. His pass was received by Davy Klaassen by the second post, but no Ajax player was in the slot to send the ball into the goal.
It seemed inevitable for Groningen that Ajax would take the lead, which they did, two minutes later. Kishna’s finishing – with the outside of his left foot – was beautiful, but Lasse Schöne’s prep work was perhaps even more beautiful. With a solid cross-pass, the Dane freed up Kishna in the enemy’s penalty kick area.
Ajax had the momentum, and with the home crowd cheering on, the Groningen goal was sought out while applying full pressure. Lucas Andersen and Kishna on the left side found each other easily. Groningen escaped unscathed, after which the Amsterdam offense slowly ebbed away.
The match balanced itself out and after 32 minutes, Antonia had his second chance of the evening. This time, he produced an easy catch for Jasper Cillessen. Ajax also had a couple more attempts, but a dangerous pass from Ricardo van Rhijn and a header from Van der Hoorn weren’t successful.
In the second half, Ajax seemed poised between two thoughts. Should Groningen be destroyed with a second goal, or would it be safer to defend the 1-0 lead? The visitors started playing more offensively, but didn’t create many good chances. Ajax remained the most dangerous team, and had the most possession. Arek Milik intended an overhead shot after a swift counter, but the execution wasn’t the best. The same was true for a shot from the edge of the box by Andersen. The big opportunity came for Kishna, but the forward was blocked by Sergio Padt.
As the second half progressed, Ajax’s play became less convincing. Groningen even had a shot at scoring a tying goal. Antonia appeared dangerously in front of the Ajax goal for the third time, but he couldn’t pull the trigger in front of Cillessen. In the end, it would be another Groningen native who would decide the match – in the wrong way. Former Ajax player Johan Kappelhof put an end to the match’s indecisiveness by scoring an own goal. He slid a pass from Nick Viergever into his own goal. Afterwards, the win was cheered by the fans with modest applause.
Thanks to this win, Ajax closed the gap on PSV to only one point. The Eindhoven team will play on Saturday against Vitesse. Next week on Sunday, the Classic awaits Ajax at home.