Ajax looked poised for victory against RSC Anderlecht. Solid play ensured the team from Amsterdam a well deserved lead. But, against ten opponents on the Brussels team, things turned sour in the last minutes of the game, and eleven disappointed Ajax players had to make do with one point, and one point only.
The evening that had begun so well, ended on an off note after a series of poorly played closing minutes. Until that point, Ajax was without a doubt the stronger team. Anderlecht took advantage of a rare moment of mediocre defensive playing, and suddenly Ajax was faced with a tied game, which felt like a moral defeat more than anything.
“We wanted to win, and we could have won tonight” said Martin Jol at the press conference. “It’s a shame, but at least we didn’t lose. We just have to live with this draw.”
Marko Pantelic made his starting debut in the Constant Vanden Stock stadium. In contrast to the last game against ADO Den Haag, this time the Serbian player started instead of Dario Cvitanich. Ismaïl Aissati and Eyong Enoh, together with the tireless Demy de Zeeuw, made up the midfield. Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld were the two central defenders, creating a virtually impenetrable wall. To the Belgian crowd, they were only known as national team Red Devils until tonight; Vertonghen and Alderweireld had the opportunity to show the crowd in Brussels what they could do as Ajax players.
It was nothing short of a miracle that Ajax hadn’t scored by halftime. In the first fifteen minutes, the team had three golden opportunities. Gregory van der Wiel’s impeccable cross pass provided captain Luis Suarez with an opportunity on a silver platter. Facing off with keeper Silvio Proto, the Uruguayan player’s shot, instead of sailing past the Anderlecht keeper, was blocked by him. A few minutes earlier, the Ajax captain had seen his fast, hard shot blocked at the goal line by Bakary Sare. Again later, Ajax’s top scorer made another attempt from close range, after De Zeeuw had challenged Proto with a long distance shot.
Anderlecht’s response was muted. The Belgian champion’s only genuine chance before half time was a header by ex-Ajax player Jelle van Damme, which sailed over the goal. 16 year old up and coming talent Romelu Lukaku was dangerous at times, but, except for a few jabs here and there, the young forward didn’t pose a serious threat to the solid defenders.
The home team’s game strategy was partly responsible for Ajax’s many missed opportunities. Anderlecht didn’t hesitate to play with five men in line on defence, in front of their home crowd. With Sare and Van Damme – who covered Kennedy - constantly thinking defensively, the initiative was definitely Ajax’s for the taking. The crowd in Brussels were left wanting more.
“Anderlecht’s intentions were clear from the beginning”, continued Jol. “In that respect, they did exactly what we expected. In the first half, we created enough opportunities to be able to take the lead, but I honestly hadn’t expected that we would play so much better than they did.”
Ajax had the leeway – and made the most of it – to build up slowly. De Zeeuw again developed as the central distributor. His strategy was not only to be where the ball was, but to set the pace of play. Wherever he was, so was the ball…and the other way around. It was as if the Ajax player had ball magnets in this boots in the Stade Constant Vanden Stock.
The crowd of 21.000 spectators, including Kim Clijsters, were to be faced with Ajax’s first goal. The celebrated US Open 2009 champion is also Van Damme’s sister in law, and must have hoped for the game to turn in favour of the Belgians. Instead, the tennis star and her fellow fans received a blow in the 71st minute. Suarez may have had an off day in terms of bringing the ball home, but there was nothing wrong with his assist to substitute Dennis Rommendahl, brought in for Kennedy. The ball went over the Anderlecht defence and landed precisely in the Dane’s stride. His close range shot by the second post did not miss.
The late opening goal led to glee in the sold out stand where the Ajax fans watched the game. The mood was different elsewhere in the stadium, as the Ajax goal caused a stir among some hot headed Belgian supporters. Home team coach Ariël Jacobs’s defensive tactics certainly contributed to the home crowd’s dark mood.
Van Damme got the best Belgian chance, but the ex-Ajax player’s shot went wide. A minute later, the game was over for Van Damme. His push on De Zeeuw was punished with a red card by Icelandic referee Kristinn Jakobson. But the Belgians got away with murder when Rommedahl, during his breakaway, was unceremoniously shoved into the grass, an action which was punished with a yellow card only. “Rommendahl was clear through to goal, so in my opinion it should have been a red card”, said Jol.
With Anderlecht a man down, everything changed in the final minutes. Maarten Stekelenburg deflected a sharp attempt from substitute Tom de Sutter. But fifteen minutes after Rommendahl’s goal, Anderlecht – totally against the run of play - tied the game. After Lukaku’s overhead kick, Jonathan Legear hit the mark. Ajax didn’t recover from this unexpected blow, and the scored remained tied.
“We should have scored a second goal much sooner” said Jol. “Then this wouldn’t have happened.”
The disappointment over the tied score was palpable after the match. After the final whistle blew, the players faced the Ajax fans in the stand with defeated looks. The fans were wholeheartedly thanked for making the trip and for their support, both verbal and moral. The feeling was that Ajax lost two points in the Belgian capital, and went home with a consolation prize of only one.
“This result is disappointing. We should have gone home with three points”, said Jan Vertonghen, visibly deflated. The Belgian defender agreed with his coach’s assessment. “We should have put the game away before halftime. Even after we made it 1-0, we had good opportunities. In the end, we just came up short here.”
The other duel in Europa League’s Group A, between FC Timisoara and Dinamo Zagreb, ended with a 3-0 victory for the Croatian team. Ajax occupies third place in the group, after an earlier tie against Timisoara, and the letdown in Constant Vanden Stock stadium. “We need to win every match at home. Dinamo’s win against Timisoara keeps it all very close.”