On Friday night, Ajax had a setback in their quest for the title. In simmering ArenA, this season’s second tie against sc Heerenveen was earned: 1-1. The fact that this could have been the 750th Eredivisie win instead turned into a disappointing show during which Ajax was unable to break the Fries defense. De Boer: “I’m very disappointed.”
Ajax – Heerenveen, for a long time, was a play that just couldn’t take off. With half-baked opportunities and combinations that didn’t bear fruit, the game was far from exciting. In fact, it was only due to the lively atmosphere in the stadium that it wasn’t downright sleep-inducing. Even then, coach Frank de Boer saw that his team wasn’t in top form. “I missed sharpness.” He found that too many wrong choices were being made. “If you manage to take possession of the ball in a busy zone, then you need to move the play. But instead of that, we stayed in that zone, and we got into difficult one-twos.”
The first highlight came after twenty-five minutes. Ricardo van Rhijn made an amazing pass from the right side. The ball made it to the second post, where the free Viktor Fischer had arrived. His Fries guards were nowhere to be found, so the forward had an unhindered opportunity to score with a header. It was a hard shot, completely out of Heerenveen keeper Nordfeldt’s reach. The stalemate had thus been broken, thanks to the young Dane, who scored his ninth competition goal of the season.
After that moment of jubilation, a desire for more arose. It seemed like Ajax was poised to score its ‘match point’. That was the word used by De Boer afterwards. “Match point, because we could have done well. If we had won, we would have made things a lot more difficult for our competitors.”
Despite the high expectations after the 1-0, a phase with very few highlights followed. Yes, Alfred Finnbogason, Heerenveen’s cunning centre forward, showed that he needs to be constantly guarded. If the Icelander is given a square inch of space, it’s often enough for him to strike without mercy. He proved this during the previous match against Heerenveen, when he took his team by the hand and, scoring two goals, ensured that Ajax was kept at bay with 2-2. It’s a good thing that keeper Jasper Cillessen reacted swiftly otherwise the centre forward would have scored the tying goal before the break.
This was reason enough for De Boer to warn his team in the break. “I said we were playing with fire. But it was just more of the same in the second half. Perhaps we played even worse. We mostly lose the ball around the opponent’s penalty kick area, but now we were losing it about fifteen meters before. Big gaps arise then, and it’s hard to cover them.” Heerenveen took advantage of this space and struck in the 53rd minute. It was none other than Finnbogason who scored the goal. He sent it in from nearby. High into the ropes, from a sharp pass from Sven Kums.
The 1-1 made it clear that Ajax needed to switch gears if they wanted to take home the full three points. Opponents Heerenveen were doing well in the match. The Fries team fought back bravely against a team struggling to created real opportunities. Until twenty minutes before the end, there were only a handful of opportunities. The fact that offensive plays were few and far between was likely due in part to Heerenveen’s defensive style of play. With five defenders in a row, Marco van Basten and his players were trying to nip Ajax’s scoring potential in the bud. They were very effective in this. Viktor Fischer, who had scored the first goal, made another attempt from the left, but saw it turned away by Nordfeldt. Ricardo van Rhijn made a sharp, dangerous pass, but Sigthórsson, then Alderweireld both missed the ball.
These were moments that brought Ajax into good scoring positions, from play resumption or passing from the flank. Especially Christian Eriksen’s free kicks should send his opponents running for cover. He thus sent a perfect pass onto Niklas Moisander’s head fifteen minutes before the end, but the defender’s shot hit the post.
While the crowd in the sold out Amsterdam ArenA longed for the winning goal, it was Heerenveen who nearly scored it. Yassine el Ghanassy stumbled onto Jasper Cillessen, who incidentally made a great impression substituting for the suspended Kenneth Vermeer. Ajax thus escaped a late goal against. “It could have been worse”, said De Boer. The coach said he was disappointed with the lost point, although he did note that Ajax still holds all the cards.
Marco van Basten, the legendary Ajax player who, with his team, played to a tie against his former club: “It promised to be a tough job beforehand, so I’m proud and happy. We kept fighting”, he said. And about his methods: “It’s harder to make the play than to break it down.” The conclusion after this match: Heerenveen is very good at breaking it down.