Champions League place gets closer every week

,,Are we playing for the Champions League or a place in the middle of the table?" That was the question Ronald Koeman asked his players halfway through the match NEC - Ajax. NEC was leading 1-0 through a goal by Youssouf Hersi, on loan at NEC from Ajax. The Ajax players realised that they were in danger of relinquishing the second place in the league, which would earn them a spot in the preliminaries of next season's Champions League, and went to work in the second half. Goals by Jari Litmanen and Maxwell turned the match around and Ajax left Nijmegen with a 2-1 victory.

Ajax had to play without Cristian Chivu and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who were both suspended, and without the help of their supporters, who boycotted the match in protest against the city of Nijmegen's visiting fan policy. The seats behind Ajax's goal remained empty. The players seemed to miss their supporters in the first half, as Ajax failed to create real scoring opportunities.

Just as last week, Ajax's opponent was still in the race for European football. But unlike RKC a week ago, NEC was not about to hand Ajax their three points. The home side put Ajax under pressure and had good chances to score, as there was a lot of space between Ajax's defenders.

It was not surprising that NEC took the lead. Frank Demouge passed the ball right through the centre to Youssouf Hersi, who was too quick for Ajax's defenders. He had no problems scoring against the club where he is under contract: 1-0 after eleven minutes. It took Ajax another ten minutes, in which NEC had some more chances, to get back into the game.

When the visitors had the most possession, they hardly knew what to do with it. The pace was still too low to surprise the home side and only from distance – Van der Meyde and Sneijder – Ajax fired at goalkeeper Gentenaar. Andy van der Meyde started on the left wing again, but he tried to go to right often, thus narrowing the already crowded half of NEC.

Sikora was quickly sent out to warm up, but Koeman waited until the second half to bring on the winger. He was booed fanatically by the crowd, who dislike anybody who has played for regional rivals Vitesse, but Sikora played a fine match for Ajax.

Everybody played better in the second half, but not before Maxwell turned the ball over to Dennis de Nooijer who had an open road toward goalkeeper Bogdan Lobont. But Maxwell hurried back and got his foot in just in time to prevent, together with Lobont, NEC taking a bigger lead.

After that Ajax went on the chase for the equaliser and more. ,,I asked at halftime whether we are still playing for the Champions League or a place in the middle of the league table", Koeman said afterwards. ,,We left them the initiative and gave especially Hersi too much room. After that goal you know it's going to be hard because NEC are defending with many players. But we kept calm in possession. That is what we have learned, and that is the experience we have gained from playing in the Champions League. Trabelsi was bothered by knee problems. I brought on Sikora for him, so defensively we were taking a bit more risks."

The gamble paid off. Sikora's good cross was neatly put away by Jari Litmanen in the 65th minute, 1-1. A disappointment for NEC, from which the team did not recover. The home side were down and Ajax played on for three necessary points. The winning goal came after 79 minutes. The pass was again from Sikora, who enabled Maxwell to fire from the left. The Brazilian shot the ball hard and high past Gentenaar: 1-2.

,,We deserved to win. In the final stages of the match we could have scored more. But NEC was much stronger than RKC last week", Ronald Koeman said.