Ajax suffered a brutal hangover on Saturday’s away game at Heracles Almelo. Midway through the first half (0-2), and shortly before the break (1-3), the national champion, although playing inconsistently, didn’t appear to be in trouble. But with a 3-3 end score, valuable points were squandered in the race for the title, and Ajax’s confidence suffered a severe blow.
Ajax resumed its stride for the championship on the artificial turf at Heracles Almelo. This ninth round of play also marked the end of a busy period of (mostly) World Cup qualifying interland games. Tobias Sana, the newly minted Swedish international, was present at kick off. Blind had filled up on confidence with Jong Oranje (earning a European Championship spot), while Ricardo van Rhijn and Kenneth Vermeer, among others, returned from one week with the Dutch national team richer for the experience. On the whole, Frank de Boer’s team seemed to have been strengthened by the international experiences of several basis players.
With Siem de Jong as centre forward (and Ryan Babel on the bench), Ajax started strongly after two weeks without playing. After ten minutes Ajax was able to celebrate a goal in the sold out Polman Stadium. Although, whether it was an Ajax goal…Heracles player Ben Rienstra did the guests a favour by putting a Lasse Schöne pass past his own keeper, Remko Pasveer. The early 0-1 lead was very welcome, especially in light of the difficult week awaiting Ajax. On Wednesday, Manchester City visits the Amsterdam ArenA as the third opponent in the Champions League. The Sunday after that, the always exciting Klassieker awaits, away at Feyenoord. On Saturday evening in Almelo, the mission was to decide the match as fast as possible, and especially not to suffer any physical damage. “Our deficit can’t increase”, De Boer had warned before the game.
De Boer’s decision to go with De Jong as centre forward wasn’t so much made with consideration to the upcoming match with England’s champion. Nobody was spared. The Ajax coach chose De Jong for tactical reasons. It was, in short, a decision to play the most appropriate centre forward against Heracles. With Sana and Derk Boerrigter as flank forwards and the Danish midfield (Eriksen-Poulsen-Schöne), the pressure on the Almelo players needed to be at its highest.
But it was clear that the home team, playing courageous and frank football, also forced opportunities from the moment that the first goal fell. One minute before the opening goal, Lerin Duarte’s header disappeared over Kenneth Vermeer’s goal. Ajax breathed a sigh of relief and went on to mount an impressive attack – which ended with Rienstra’s goal. Later on, Schöne brought the Heracles defense to attention. But they couldn’t stop the Dane who, sent in by De Jong, struck solely on his own steam this time: 0-2.
Ajax was sitting pretty midway through the first half. Or so it seemed. The first warning shot actually came when Duarte’s free kick hit the post next to Vermeer. Ajax started the second half with Ryan Babel taking over for Boerrigter. By and large, the second half was similar to the first. Once again, several exciting moments took place in rapid succession. After an hour of play, defender Mike te Wierik brought the excitement back into the game by scoring at close range. The Amsterdam team had only itself to blame that the defender was able to score so simply. Apathetic defense brought the ball to Te Wierik’s feet, and he took full advantage. One minute later, Amsterdam crowned Heracles’s weak defense with another goal. After one attempt – with an overhead kick - was spectacularly turned away at the goal line, new international Sana struck mercilessly. The 1-3 halftime score should have ensured that Ajax had nothing to worry about. In any case, the win shouldn’t be threatened.
Thomas Bruns’ subsequent goal made for a hectic and chaotic last few minutes. Ajax was unfortunate when a Babel goal was unjustly disqualified due to suspected offside. In the closing minutes, Vermeer made several great saves, and substitute Geoffrey Castillion, loaned out by Ajax, had a great opportunity but his shot went over. The unexpectedly difficult game finally seemed to be drawing to a close.
In extra time, things went wrong for the Amsterdam team once again. Substitute Luis Pedro threw Ajax for a loop by scoring a sensational tying goal: 3-3. This ensured endless cheer in the Polman Stadium, where the tie was celebrated as a win. Ajax went home with a bad hangover, heading into matches against Manchester City and Feyenoord.
“We weren’t manly enough”, said Frank de Boer, disappointed with the tie in Almelo. “When you’re ahead by two goals twice, you just can’t give it away. That’s not worthy of Ajax. We played well at times, and took advantage of the space that Heracles gave us, especially before the break. But in the end, we failed to kill the match. Out of the blue, we gave it away after 3-2. We lost ourselves after a refereeing call. That’s bitter. It feels like a loss.”