On Sunday, Ajax suffered a costly loss of points in the race for the championship. In the Gelredome, a win seemed within reach after an hour of play. A reckless fifteen minutes proved to be fatal for the Amsterdam team. Vitesse transformed a 0-2 deficit to a 3-2 win. “This is a very costly lesson.”
Ajax made a good start in this away game at Vitesse. The duel in the Gelredome, which was not sold out but with 21.867 visitors, was at a season-high capacity, broke out half an hour into the game. Standout Kenneth Vermeer rang in the Amsterdam team’s opening goal with a beautiful save. Former Ajax player Jan-Arie van der Heijden took a shot from very close by, but saw Ajax’s keeper make the critical save. Frank de Boer’s team was spared a goal against. Three minutes later, the ball was behind Piet Velthuizen. An attempt from Lasse Schöne was deflected by Guram Kashia, and thus helped the guests get a lucky lead.
The Amsterdam team had had luck on their side even before that. Van der Heijden went to the grass in the box, but referee Bas Nijhuis let play continue. In the previous thirty minutes, the duel between the title contenders was reminiscent of a chess match. A chess match with sensational shots. Velthuizen thus made save on a shot from centre forward Siem de Jong after the first fifteen minutes. Scarcely one minute later, Vermeer foiled Renato Ibarra’s attempt. Eriksen saw his shot on goal, on a pass from controller Christian Poulsen, finally bounce off crowd favourite Velthuizen. It was never boring in the Gelredome.
De Boer hadn’t changed his squad much one week after the glowing win of the Klassieker (3-0) in the Amsterdam ArenA. Viktor Fischer – with two goals, the star against Feyenoord – once again got the call to start at left winger. Joël Veltman was a new Ajax face in De Boer’s starting line-up. As Ricardo van Rhijn had been suspended (after a red card in the Klassieker), Toby Alderweireld took his place as right back. “The choice for Toby as right back was simple”, De Boer explained his decision beforehand. “Alderweireld plays this position with the Belgian team too.”
The division of labour within the current national champions was otherwise crystal clear. Centre forward Jonathan Reis was shadowed alternately by Veltman and Niklas Moisander. Vitesse, playing without Wilfried Bony (the top scorer has obligations at the Africa Cup), had to stop Blind, Alderweireld and midfielder/controller Poulsen from scoring via its defenders. The experienced Dane regularly sank back to the last line to lend an extra helping hand. Veltman lived up to his coach’s trust in Arnhem. The right central defender proved to be a more than trustworthy stand-in. Without its top scorer, it was only a times that Vitesse was reminiscent of the team that defeated Ajax earlier this season in Amsterdam. Two goals by the Ivory Coast native cost Ajax its only other loss (0-2) of this season in the Eredivisie.
With Eriksen’s 0-2 goal – Poulsen’s long distance shot extended with a header – in the pocket, this top duel seemed to be decided after an hour. Ajax was in control and seemed poised to build on its lead, rather than let Vitesse fight its way back. “We, and I think Vitesse as well, felt that it was a done deal”, said Frank de Boer, looking back with candid distaste on the lost match in Arnhem. It ended up completely differently. After former Ajax player Theo Janssen brought his team closer (1-2; great chip past Vermeer), things took a turn for the worse for the guests.
“After that, Vitesse gained confidence and so did the crowd”, continued De Boer. “That was totally unnecessary. We need to realize, as a team, that we could have prevented that first goal against very easily.” Even Vermeer, who was at times exhibited unparalleled keeping skills, couldn’t prevent left back Patrick van Aanholt from scoring the tying goal. Just thirteen minutes after the first Arnhem goal from Janssen, Renato Ibarra sensationally carried the Gelderland team past Ajax.
“The key lesson that we need to learn from this is that we can never give away a 2-0 lead”, said the Ajax coach, who saw a series of fifteen undefeated Eredivisie matches end on Sunday. “This is a real shame, and a very costly lesson.”
The guests, so beaten down at this point, never recovered from this unexpected hit. This season, Vitesse is the only Eredivisie club to defeat Ajax – twice, no less. In the battle to extend its reign as national champion, Ajax experienced a painful setback on Sunday. The fight will definitely be exciting for the remaining fourteen rounds of play. On Thursday, Ajax can get their revenge against the Arnhem team. That evening in Emmen (the Gelredome can’t be used for play), the Vitesse – Ajax cup match will take place.