On a rainy Sunday in Utrecht, Ajax’s quest for their thirtieth championship encountered defeat for the third time this season. After losses against both PSV and Twente, their visit to Utrecht ended in similar fashion: 2-0.
The week that had started so well, with a 5-1 win against Vitesse, ended on a sour note in Utrecht. Following their midweek victory in Romania, earning Ajax the right to a Europa League winter break, they didn’t manage to extend their winning streak to their third away match of the week. Especially during the second half, Ajax had no reply to Utrecht’s overpowering play. To their disappointment, Ajax saw themselves outplayed, and were powerless to prevent their third defeat this season.
Martin Jol kept his starting team in the Domstad almost the same as it had been in Timisoara, the only switch being Ismail Aissati starting instead of Mitchell Donald at midfield. He left his – until then – successful team otherwise unchanged for this game in the centre of the Netherlands. FC Utrecht, who had to do without an ill Kevin Vanderbergh, wanted to show their home crowd what they could do against Ajax. Before halftime this didn’t seem to threaten the guests much – but afterwards was a different story.
Neither side had many good opportunities in the first half. First, it was Aissati who, in his hometown, had the best chance for Ajax. The midfielder tried to create a combination with Suarez, but he didn’t manage to finish well enough in front of goalie Michel Vorm. Five minutes before the break, Ricky van Wolfswinkel made a good attempt, but the Utrecht forward was blocked by Stekelenburg. He also failed to convert another opportunity afterwards. The first half can be summarized as follows: three good opportunities, two good saves by the keepers, and two yellow cards for Ajax players Anita and Alderweireld.
But the second half wasn’t so simple to summarize. In the third minute after play resumed, Man of the match Jacob Mulenga opened the score. The forward didn’t have any trouble with Toby Alderweireld, who was saddled with a yellow card and couldn’t intercept Mulenga’s confrontation with Stekelenburg. His shot sailed past the Ajax goalie: 1-0.
Ajax was fully supported in Utrecht by 1200 fans, who had made the trip from Amsterdam in 24 touring cars. That number was actually two fewer busses than originally planned. Fireworks were found in two of the vehicles, and the authorities therefore decided that two busses had to remain in Amsterdam. Originally, law enforcement officials had ordered ten busses to stay back, but after some discussion, Ajax was able to limit this to two.
Having reached the Domstad, the fans saw that Ajax didn’t pose a threat to their hosts in the sold out Galgenwaard Stadium. Ten minutes into the second half, Jol tried to bring a faster tempo to the team by sending in Rommendahl for Emanuelson, who was unable to play the whole match due to a back injury. Unfortunately, the Danish player was unable to blow wind into the visitors’ sails, or give their fans a reason to cheer. Instead, Utrecht forward Van Wolfswinkel had a plethora of scoring chances, but he simply couldn’t get the best of Stekelenburg. After 57 minutes, Marko Pantelic – just like Aissati in the first half - had a good opportunity, but the Serb didn’t succeed. He lifted high from close range, marking the first game this week in which he didn’t score.
Pantelic’s team mates couldn’t do any better. In fact, Utrecht was the team with the best opportunities. “If you can’t score, the next best thing is to keep a clean sheet”, said Martin Jol. This becomes impossible with a 0-1 deficit, and the final nail went into the coffin as FC Utrecht scored again in the 67th minute. Jan Wuytens sent a decisive header on Nijholt’s corner kick, making an Ajax comeback out of the question.
Especially when Ajax was down to ten players in the last fifteen minutes, due to Anita’s second yellow card, any point seemed far away. Utrecht kept concentration, and Ajax remained empty handed. “We were outplayed in the duels”, analysed Jol afterwards. “Before half time, we were still able to manage, but that wasn’t the case in the second half.”