Frank de Boer’s competition start couldn’t have been better. Ajax’s interim coach posted a 0-1 win against Vitesse in the Gelredome. A few days after a beautiful Champions League win against AC Milan, Ajax also played a good game in Arnhem on Sunday. Lorenzo Ebecilio made his debut, and Christian Eriksen scored the winning goal.
There was a funny incident as the players arrived. For his first Eredivisie match, De Boer had a hard time finding the right dug-out. With a smile, he left Vitesse’s bench, and found Ajax’s. This awkward beginning was in contrast to how Ajax started out in the match a few minutes later. With quick and daring football. Ajax’s performance echoed their strong game in Milan. But, regardless of how good the opening was, it was just the beginning of a tense afternoon.
Lorenzo Ebecilio made his Ajax debut in Arnhem. The 19 year old winger received a starting spot from the 112 time international, thus filling the gap left by the ill Mounir El Hamdaoui and the suspended Luis Suarez on Ajax’s offense. With Christian Eriksen back at number 10 and Siem de Jong as centre forward, Ajax continued in the same successful vein as in Milan. Just as it had been in San Siro, De Boer’s team was, at times, a true whirlwind. Their game couldn’t have been more different than it was in their mediocre performance just eight days ago under Martin Jol’s lead against NEC in the Amsterdam ArenA.
It was an enjoyable afternoon under the Gelredome’s closed roof. From kick off, Ajax set the pace, pushing Vitesse back continuously into their side of the field. This strategy paid off after only eleven minutes. On a pass from Demy de Zeeuw, Eriksen made good. The young Dane kept his cool and brought Ajax into the lead with a smart low shot: 0-1. A good long distance shot from De Zeeuw (saved by Room) marked the end of Ajax’s brisk opening.
During the rest of the first half, both the visitors’ stand and Ajax’s bench experienced several more enjoyable moments. Fine passes and good shots on goal abounded. The only downside was Eyong Enoh’s early exit (eye injury), with Rasmus Lindgren coming in to replace him after 23 minutes. After this switch, the rhythm at midfield suffered somewhat. Ajax also missed out on increasing its lead during the first half, and Vitesse continued to hunt for the tying goal. Davy Pröpper came close to scoring it just before the break, but he found Maarten Stekelenburg in his way. With a good save, the Ajax keeper distinguished himself as well.
Under the watchful eye of national team coach Bart van Marwijk and A1 coach Bob de Klerk, both of whom are now De Boer’s former colleagues, Ajax had a more difficult time with Vitesse after the break. Their slim lead was threatened shortly after play resumed, when Eriksen had to get a ball from the line. After that, the home team, with Ajax loaned out player Aissati, via Dalibor Stevanovic, came close to scoring the tying goal twice. Just as he had been before the break, Stekelenburg was master of the situation on both occasions.
In the hectic closing phase, with substitutes Vurnon Anita in for the ill Gregory van der Wiel, and Aras Özbiliz in for Ebecillio, who was spent after his debut, things got tense a few more times in front of Ajax’s goal. Especially since Anita (on an Eriksen pass) and Miralem Sulejmani (on a De Jong pass) had failed to increase Ajax’s lead earlier on. Deep into extra time, as Vitesse seemed to threaten one last time, referee Van Boekel whistled for offside. De Boer’s visible relief, and wink to the bench, were a pleasure to see. Thirty seconds later, De Boer’s wink turned into a broad smile and hug. With his assistant Danny Blind, he celebrated his first competition win. Added to PSV’s loss of points, Ajax and De Boer will have an enjoyable week leading up to the Klassieker.
“We saw an Ajax which played well on a tough field today”, said De Boer after his competition debut. “And, if you consider that our top scorers weren’t playing today, it’s great to see how other players can step up and manage without them. A few players faded out towards the end, but that’s not strange since I demand a lot from my players, especially the attackers. In the end, I’m very pleased with today. We can build on this. I’ve seen great things today, and I’ve also seen some things which weren’t so great. That’s a good thing, because otherwise it would be too easy.”