For sixty minutes, Ajax seemed poised to defeat their hosts, AZ. But after Ricardo van Rhijn was sent off with a red card, the worst possible scenario came true, and the game ended in a 3-2 loss. “Totally unnecessary”, was Frank de Boer’s opinion.
After the match’s end, De Boer complimented his victorious colleague Gertjan Verbeek on his team’s performance, but at the same time, the coach judged that his own team hadn’t come through at certain times. Especially not in the first half, when he found that his team lacked sharpness. “We controlled in the second half, but then a decision tipped the match in the other team’s favour.” He was referring to the red card given to Van Rhijn, who, after slight contact with Viergever, pushed him onto the grass in the penalty kick area. It quickly became a 2-2 game, after which AZ got a second wind. “We didn’t feel that as much. But still, it doesn’t mean that we needed to lose the match, but they played it out well against ten men.”
His players were stiff in the beginning of the sold-out match in the AFAS stadium. They may have had possession, but it was AZ who had the first opportunities of the match. First it was a weak shot from Johann Berg Gudmundsson, and soon after came a hard shot from Roy Beerens, who was intercepted by Daley Blind. But it was Nemanja Gudelj with his spectacular overhead kick which landed just next to Kenneth Vermeer’s goal, who came the closest to scoring.
In the meantime, Ajax tried to reach the opponent’s goal with careful combination plays. This was only moderately successful, but despite that, the visitors were up 0-1 after twenty minutes of play. Christian Eriksen was the acclaimed Ajax player who curled the ball behind AZ keeper Esteban from a free kick 25 meters out. It went perfectly into the corner, although there were grumblings that the goal was due to a mistake of Esteban’s. In any case, the joy was great in the full visitors’ stands, where 850 Ajax fans witnessed later on how Ajax almost increased its lead to 0-2. Bojan played the wall wide to the awaiting Viktor Fischer, but Markus Henriksen got the tip of his shoe in between. “Had we scored then, the match might have been decided”, said De Boer.
Although Ajax was the better team, AZ evened up the game before the break thanks to Roy Beerens. He got the ball at his feet after a corner, and shot in. Before Beerens could score, Kenneth Vermeer seemed to be hindered right in front of his goal, but referee Bas Nijhuis didn’t see any foul. De Boer on the first half: “I missed sharpness. Cross balls weren’t precise enough, receipts were bad and even after seven corners against, we didn’t win any header duels. AZ wasn’t dangerous, but it was just a matter of time before they would attack.”
The tying goal right at the halftime mark was a mental boost for AZ, but Ajax wasn’t deterred. In fact it was just the opposite, since Siem de Jong scored not even fifteen minutes into the second half. On a clear pass from Bojan Krkic, he defeated Esteban with his head. The captain once again showed off his coolheaded, scoring capabilities. Viktor Fischer also had a good opportunity, but found Esteban in his way. It was in this phase that Ajax seemed poised to take the match home. “We were controlling and we were just waiting for the 1-3 goal.”
Until then, there had been no sign of the dire situation Ajax would soon be facing. This scenario was initiated by a foul from Ricardo van Rhijn. In the 65th minute, Nick Viergeever hit the ground after a duel with the Ajax player, after which referee Nijhuis pointed to the spot. Van Rhijn was sent off with a red card. The penalty kick was taken by Aron Jóhannsson. He sent Jasper Cillessen, who came in for a sick Kenneth Vermeer in the second half, into the wrong corner.
With the home crowd behind them, AZ rose to the occasion as ten Ajax players struggled to come back. Just when a dose of resilience was needed, the situation got worse in the 74th minute when AZ took a 3-2 lead. Viktor Elm scored on a taylor-made pass from substitute Maarten Martens. After that, everyone waited for Ajax to rise again, but it was as if the guests couldn’t recover from AZ’s last blow. It was AZ that failed in finishing, as the game could easily have become 5-3.