A football evening that began with so much promise ended in bitter disappointment. In this midweek competition match against AZ, Ajax showed itself to be lively and confident for the first time in several weeks. But, thrown for a loop partly by Niklas Moisander’s red card, Ajax went under: 0-1.
Ajax knew what it needed to do in this 21st Eredivisie match. After PSV defeated NAC Breda on Tuesday, only a victory would suffice in order to, realistically, remain a contender in the race for the title. The deficit on the Eindhoven leader is 12 points after 21 rounds of play. New number three PEC Zwolle is another contender to watch. Feyenoord and AZ need to make up five points each to catch Ajax. Frank de Boer’s 200th match as Ajax’s coach was one that would best be forgotten quickly.
After a series of disappointing results, the Amsterdam team’s play has been significantly below expectations during the past weeks. A lack of spirit and gusto were only two of the main issues. In an attempt to help Ajax become itself again, De Boer had seriously shaken up his team after the 1-0 loss to Vitesse. The Amsterdam midfield consisted of teenagers Riechedly Bazoer, Jairo Riedewald and Daley Sinkgraven, making his debut. The former sc Heerenveen player signed his Ajax contract on Saturday. The midfielder, after a few trainings, appeared ready to make his debut in the Amsterdam ArenA. Sinkgraven quickly showed the flair and technique of a true Ajacied, although, of course, it’s still early days.
After the downer in the Gelredome, Arek Milik and Lucas Andersen were relegated to the bench against AZ. Lasse Schöne did the honours as centre forward. The Danish veteran – who can play in pretty much any position – was flanked by wingers Anwar El Ghazi and Ricardo Kishna. The injured Davy Klaassen, Joël Veltman and Thulani Serero watched on in the ArenA. Jasper Cillessen was also plagued by health complaints leading up to the North Holland derby, but the international appeared to have recovered sufficiently to take his place between the posts.
Ajax opened the North Holland derby with a liveliness that it hadn’t shown in a long time. Against Feyenoord (especially) and Vitesse, the Ajacieds had lacked brawn and conviction. At kick off, AZ was treated to flair, daring, and typical Ajax play executed in good tempo. With Sinkgraven as one of the most notable Ajax player, the ball was passed fluidly. In the opening phase, this resulted in an opportunity for El Ghazi. The right winger, unfortunately, shot over and into the gloves of keeper Alvarado Esteban.
A promising rush from left back Nicolai Boilesen, who had covered half a field, remained without reward (wide ball). Seven minutes later, Mike van der Hoorn seemed poised to bring his team into the lead. The central defender was unlucky in that his header, from a Lasse Schöne header, was saved by an incredibly lucky Matthias Johansson at the crossbar. In the rebound, Ricardo van Rhijn’s long distance shot went a little wide.
The Amsterdam team’s intentions were crystal clear. Ajax was, finally, dominating its opponent again. Although in the last fifteen minutes of the first half, an Alkmaar counter was just avoided. Cillessen made a save on Steven Berghuis’ attempt. Guus Hupperts then sent a header over, after good defensive intervention by Van Rhijn. Despite the AZ opportunities, Ajax seemed to be on the right path.
However, the first signs that it would become a difficult evening were there when El Ghazi missed his shot. The Ajacied with the most danger in the play shot the ball just wide. Captain Niklas Moisander’s slight contact with AZ centre forward Aron Jóhansson was punished heavily by referee Pol van Boekel with a red card. The Ajacieds were thus forced to survive the last thirty minutes with just ten men. De Boer answered by bringing in Niki Zimling, Nick Viergever and Kenny Tete, making his debut. The trio was meant to help turn away a potential Alkmaar storm.
Three minutes after Sinkgraven failed to score, Aron Jóhansson showed his killer instinct. The American was exactly in the right place at the right time to send Simon Poulsen’s pass past Cillessen: 0-1. This evening, which had started so promisingly, ended on a sour note. For only the second time in competition history, AZ managed to defeat Ajax in Amsterdam. The last time this happened was in 1980. Reality now is bleak now for Ajax. For now, it appears that the team can forget about a fifth title under De Boer.