Europa exhaustion tells in Eindhoven

There’s never a moments rest in Football.

Just four days after grounding out a historic Europa League quarter-final victory over Schalke 04, Ajax faced another huge challenge in Eindhoven against 3rd place PSV.

De Topper.

Perhaps the true impact of an exhausting 120-minute performance required to beat the German side had not been realised in the post-match celebrations, which focused solely on Ajax’s place in the semi-finals of European competition for the first time since 1997.

The trip to Eindhoven to face a PSV side with fresh minds, and even fresher legs could not have come at a worse time, and provided a stark reminder of the huge demands of playing both European and domestic football at this stage of the campaign. In the end, the demands of a second match on the road against top-class opposition in 5 days took their toll.

Despite the mental and physical effects of Thursday night’s heroic victory on the players, boss Peter Bosz chose to make only made one change to the Ajax side that began in Gelsenkirchen, Kasper Dolberg starting in place of Justin Kluivert. Bertrand Traore, who started on the right, could not even make it to half time before limping off. Amin Younes similarly departed with an empty tank at the interval.

Having tasted victory in Eindhoven in each the last 3 seasons, even in the most pressurised scenarios, there was little worry over the players knowing what was required. Get on the front foot, snatch a lead and quiet the home crowd.

This time, the script was to read a little differently.

Instead, it was the hosts who began the match in the brighter fashion with Jurgen Locadia sending two efforts wide of the target, before Bart Ramselaar saw a shot blocked. With Locadia once again starting in place of Luuk de Jong, PSV’s attacks carried bags of energy of pace, a perfect kryptonite for a weary Ajax defence.

25 minutes into the contest, Matthijs de Ligt brought down Steven Bergwijn just outside the area. The outcome was written. Up stepped Locadia to perfectly rocket the ball over the wall and into the top corner of the net. 1-0 PSV, a nightmare start.

Embodying the story of their season so far, up stepped Ajax to the challenge, roaring back to take the game to PSV. Ziyech could not emulate Locadia’s accuracy with his free-kick, whilst Lasse Schöne blazed wide a half chance from the edge of the area. Ajax’s best chance came just seconds before the half-time whistle as PSV keeper Jeroen Zoet, never far from an error, almost gifted Dolberg a goal as he mis-controlled a tame backpass, but luckily for the stopper he managed to outstretch his leg and turn the ball away from the Danish forward just in the nick of time.

With the exhausted Younes making way for David Neres, Ajax returned for the second half knowing that anything but another monumental comeback would leave their domestic title hopes in tatters. Without a win in any of the previous 10 away matches they had conceded first in, it was to be an incredibly tall order from the visitors if they were to produce a plot twist. The Brazilian got straight into the heart of the action, and in the 50th minute had a huge chance to draw de Godenzonen level. Bursting onto a quick thrown-in, he rounded a stranded Zoet well outside of his goal, but saw his snapshot go wide of the target.

The last twenty minutes saw an open, end-to-end contest develop, but with chances at a real premium, neither keeper was properly tested. Locadia prodded over whilst late in stoppage time, PSV substitute Joshua Brenet somehow didn’t score after quickly breaking downfield with only Onana back.

After 94 long minutes, the book was finally closed on a miserable afternoon at the Phillips Stadion, with Peter Bosz resigned to admit likely defeat in the title race. But despite acknowledging the hangover of 120 minutes against Schalke just 3 days before had not helped, Bosz refused to use it as an excuse for his side’s defeat.

Speaking with NOS post-match, he said, “I do not want to use that as an excuse, however. We were careless in ball possession today and we did not play well in the first half. We have character and we have proved that we can play good football and we have also demonstrated that many times this season and I have appreciated that as Ajax manager. We have played 18 games in Europe this season and we have not always dropped points afterwards. Players from Ajax must be able to cope with playing two games in a week.”

A well-earned two-week rest now awaits, before attentions turn back towards the Europa League with the first leg of the semi-final against Olympique Lyonnais. If Bosz and his men are to cap-off an enjoyable season with some silverware, then it will surely be in that competition, which has suddenly become top priority.

All roads now lead to Stockholm.