Statistics showed that Ajax hadn’t lost to AZ in Amsterdam in 31 years. But things seemed to head in a different direction on Saturday evening, as the first loss in all those years to the Alkmaar based league leader seemed imminent. With a 0-2 score at halftime, AZ was close to an upset, but thanks to a successful penalty kick from Sulejmani and a Janssen goal it was a 2-2 tied game – even though Ajax was down to ten men after Enoh was sent off with his second yellow card.
Before the match, Frank de Boer said their recent winning streak only meant that the first defeat was getting closer. The West Friesland native isn’t a doomsday thinker; Ajax’s coach simply sees things realistically, and the loss of the Dutch team to Sweden on Tuesday proved that his thinking isn’t flawed.
The coach was forced to put a puzzle together for this AZ match. This was due to several injured players- Nicolai Boilesen, Kolbeinn Sigthórsson – and Gregory van der Wiel’s suspension. With Toby Alderweireld on the right side and André Ooijer at left centre, De Boer had solved that piece. The coach felt that it was too early to give Ruben Ligoen a spot on the squad. Siem de Jong took the centre forward spot, and Dmitry Bulykin was on the bench for 81 minutes. That tactic meant that at midfield, a more offensive role was assigned to Eyong Enoh and Theo Janssen.
But a coach can only find good solutions – against the quick AZ forwards, you simply can’t afford to lose possession at midfield. And that’s exactly what happened several times in the first half. After Ajax suffered some bad luck – Siem de Jong’s header in the ninth minute was fantastically ticked away from under the crossbar by Esteban – Alkmaar’s captain was successful in the fourteenth minute. At first, Kenneth Vermeer made an outstanding save on Holman’s shot, but, five seconds later, remained hopeless against the Australian’s shot, which landed behind Vermeer via Alderweireld’s heel, 0-1.
Ajax seemed to manage this setback, and five minutes later, Boerrigter and Eriksen elicited applause for a fabulous combination. Unfortunately, their effort wasn’t rewarded with a goal, as Sulejmani’s attempt was too soft to defeat AZ’s Corsican goalie. Loss of possession at midfield set AZ’s forwards up in a direct scoring position in the 22nd minute, and it was Beerens who finished it off, 0-2. A blow for Ajax, who, shortly after this goal, had another close call courtesy of Beerens once again, via Ooijer. Fortunately, they were spared a 0-3 deficit. In the rest of the first half, Ajax seemed to get back on track somewhat. Ajax came close to scoring twice, but both attempts ended up on the crossbar (in the 36th and 37th minute).
In the second half, De Boer went ahead and brought in Ruben Ligeon for André Ooijer, who already had a yellow card. Alderweireld moved to the central position, and the nineteen year old right back made his official debut in the first team. Ajax experienced a dream start to the half when referee Kuipers put the ball on the spot after a foul on Boerrigter. Miralem Sulejmani took an outstanding shot and hit his mark, 1-2. From that moment, Ajax’s faith was renewed, and Eriksen’s free kick in the 61st minute brought them close to 2-2. But after roughly an hour, two big setbacks came for Ajax. In the 68th minute, Vermeer left the field, injured, after a collision with Wernbloom. One minute later, Eyong Enoh got a second yellow card, and was forced to leave. Ajax thus needed to play for a long period with only ten men, just as they had in Groningen. During that match, they actually played better with ten men that eleven. And the same was true against AZ.
But AZ could have made it 1-3 when substitute Benschop got two big opportunities. Thanks to Cillessen and Alderweireld – who got the ball out of the goal with a slide – Ajax could still hope to make a comeback. The team from Amsterdam fought every battle, and with the arrival of Bulykin for Eriksen, a true centre forward had arrived. This change paid off in the 82nd minute, when Theo Janssen took a hard shot and saw the ball disappear into the goal’s far corner, 2-2. The game remained exciting until the last second of the five minutes extra time. AZ had become very nervous, and Ajax kept the pressure up. Cillessen prevented AZ from going up 2-3, and Ajax thus ended the match with one hard-earned point. “I can live with 2-2”, said De Boer afterwards. “But you want to get three points in the ArenA. It was great that the crowd kept supporting us. We were able to drive AZ back with ten men, and we fought, although we knew that we were also giving away opportunities. It’s a good thing that Jasper made some great saves.”
AZ keeper Verbeek had complimentary words for Ajax. “Kudos to Ajax for going after a goal, even with one man down. For us, it was a let-down that the 1-2 came so fast. Ajax went for the win from that moment on.”