The KNVB cup is the only prize in the Netherlands that Frank de Boer hasn’t won as a coach. This season, he is determined to change that. On Wednesday evening, the first match of the tournament can be called a success, as De Graafschap was defeated 2-0. The highlight was John Heitinga’s stint as a substitute, his first official playing time of the season. Immediately, the painful football evening that had been in progress was soon forgotten.
The match was already locked down in the second half. There wasn’t much more juice left in the game, but Heitinga personally ensured that the crowd would leave the stadium ecstatic and proud. The fans were already excited as he warmed up. When Heitinga came in eight minutes before time, he received a standing ovation. A few minutes later, the climax came. Heitinga sent the 2-0 goal in from a corner, bringing the half-filled ArenA to its feet. The defender was cheered on without interruption during the whole time he was on-field, as a cherry on the cake, he was selected as Man of the Match.
“Those were ten great minutes”, was Heitinga’s reaction afterwards. “I can’t describe how I feel right now. Incredible. You don’t get this very often in your career. I know I’m loved, but this is above and beyond everything. I’m happy with my return, but on the other hand, I’m happy it’s over. Now we can move on.”
Didn’t draw a big crowd
De Graafschap started its comeback Eredivisie season with a series of six losses, and thus didn’t draw a big crowd in Amsterdam. The second tier of the ArenA remained closed. About 24 thousand supporters came to see Ajax’s first cup tournament match. They saw De Boer’s radically changed line-up. The coach used the cup match to give several reserves playing time in the first team.
Just like last season, Diederik Boer was the keeper in the cup matches. Ricardo van Rhijn, Mike van der Hoorn and Lasse Schöne also started. On paper, the faltering De Graafschap team was the perfect opponent for building up confidence. Ajax has only been disappointed in the Eredivisie once, at FC Twente (2-2), but their playing hasn’t always been at a high level. Considering Ajax’s house style of play, the team always aims to entertain the crowd.
Ajax made its intentions clear (with a 3-4-3 system) against their opponents. In the eighth minute, Ajax almost scored the opening goal. A spot-on pass landed with Viktor Fischer at the second post, but his head collided with keeper Hidde Jurjus. The danger was still there, but captain Nemanja Gudelj hit the post on the rebound.
Not even one minute later, De Graafschap made a move. In retrospect, it was the visitors’ only real chance. Boer was able to save a shot from the edge of the box with some difficulty, and saw the ball land, to his relief, on the crossbar. Soon after, he was able to breathe a sigh of relief once again when the flag was raised for Erik Quekel. The striker had sent the ball with a header – from an offside position – into the empty goal.
Ajax was determined to score a goal and put on the pressure after the opening fifteen minutes. De Graafschap survived this onslaught with little damage. After that, the Amsterdam storm died down, or so it seemed. But in the 41st minute, things picked up again when Fischer scored the 1-0 goal. The Dane was served a good, precise pass by Arek Milik. For Fischer, it was a piece of cake to send a low shot into the goal. His defender has put himself out of position by being at Fischer’s heels during the sprint into position.
De fans hoped for more a show in the second half, but this didn’t happen right away. De Graafschap had their defense together, and Ajax’s attempts at creating danger were scarce. Halfway through the second half, the home team started threatening again, but it wasn’t until the last fifteen minutes that the real show began.
Gudelj came close to scoring with a long-range shot, but his attempt was wide. In the 82nd minute, Heitinga was sent in as defending midfielder. Shortly after, he decided the match with a header.
De Boer: “I’m happy for John, because he’s worked very hard for this. I don’t think you could ask for a better debut. I thought we were playing well at times. We were good at getting the ball into position, but each time there was simply something off. Although I did see us get more threatening right before John came in. it’s great for John and for the crowd that he scored the second goal.”