After tied home games against FC Twente, AZ, Feyenoord and NAC Breda, Ajax fans finally had reason to cheer after an Eredivisie home match. It was the first win at a national level since August 26. On that day, Vitesse were defeated, 4-1, and now Ajax beat Excelsior by the same score. “But it felt like we could have scored more”, said coach Frank de Boer afterwards.
Frank de Boer started the match against Excelsior with three defenders. Since Gregory van der Wiel was kept on the side-lines as a precaution, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and – surprisingly – Daly Blind formed the defensive trio. If needed, a quick change could be made as Vurnon Anita, playing at right midfield, could always go one line back. Up front, De Boer also selected a different player than last week. Not Lorenzo Ebecilio, but Ismaïl Aissati earned a starting spot. His playing time didn’t last long, as he left the field with an ankle injury. The left winger, who was making a return to Ajax 1, went to the hospital afterwards to rule out a broken bone.
From kick-off, Ajax had almost exclusive ball possession. At one point, it was even 75% to 25%. Excelsior, who had seen competitor VVV-Venlo lose 7-0 to Heracles on Friday evening, had every interest to limit the number of goals against, and regularly had six men on the line. However, the home team managed to break through in the eleventh minute. Christian Eriksen lifted the ball behind the Rotterdammers’ last line, where Jan Vertonghen had appeared. The captain received the ball and scored a controlled goal, 1-0. Not even two minutes later, Nicolás Lodeiro had the next goal at his boots. After a Wesley de Ruiter rebound on a Sulejmani shot, he had the ball ready for a low shot, but the Ajax centre forward’s attempt was blocked by the goalie’s legs.
In the twentieth minute, Excelsior was finally able to set up an attack after some sloppy playing by Ajax. According to De Boer, this illustrated the problem in the match: “We weren’t clean enough with our passes. If we do that on Wednesday as well, then Real Madrid will make quick work of it.” Ajax got away with it, this time. Roland Alberg’s shot went wide. As Ajax was playing at a slow tempo, Excelsior came out of its shell more often and Mitchell de Vrede had the ball poised for a goal in the 22nd minute, but he missed.
Excelsior had more problems when Samuel Scheimann tripped Miralem Sulejmani mercilessly. He received a red card immediately, and it’s a small miracle that the Serbian Ajax player was able to continue. Before he returned to the field, Ajax was 2-0 ahead. Vertonghen’s header on a Janssen free kick went in beautifully: 2-0. Five minutes before the break, De Boer substituted Eyong Enoh for A-junior Ruben Ligeon. Ajax’s task that evening was to work on their goal balance, but the opposite happened. Excelsior pulled up to 2-1 before the break, when everything went pear shaped with Ajax’s defence and Te Vrede found Maatsen by the second post.
Ajax started the second half with Lorenzo Ebecilio, who replaced the injured Aissati. Despite its numeric advantage, Ajax struggled. The black and red defensive might have been missing a brick, but they barely let anything through. It was only in the 62nd minute, when Lodeiro was touched lightly by Wattemaleo, that Sulejmani scored from the penalty spot: 3-1. As his substitution was being prepared on the side-line, Lodeiro shot a free kick in beautifully: 4-1. It was his last play, as the Uruguayan made room for Davy Klaassen , who was greeted by loud cheers by the fans.
Ajax tried to score more, and attempts from, among others, Ligeon (post), Klaassen (good save by De Ruiter), Ligeon (over), Klaassen (header into De Ruiter’s hands), and Janssen (wide) came close, but didn’t increase the score. The clock ticked slowly but surely towards ninety minutes, and three points were finally in the bag. Real Madrid will play on this same field on Wednesday evening. Ajax will need to raise their game significantly in order to post an acceptable result. “I’m satisfied with 4-1, but I feel like we should have doubled that score. Our intentions were good, but because of messy passes, the tempo wasn’t there in our attacks.”