Excelsior draw damages title hopes

SBV Excelsior 1-1 Ajax Amsterdam

“When it rains, it pours.”

For Ajax on Sunday, it poured torrentially. Almost inexplicably, playing against the league’s ‘minnows’ Excelsior and riding the back of a superb win in the Europa League over FC Copenhagen, everything that could go wrong, did. All the hard-work in remaining unbeaten since the winter break and closing the gap on the leaders down to 4 points suddenly became un-done. In Rotterdam, of course.

As I stared out over the tiny 4,400 capacity Stadion Woudestein, I simply could not fathom what I had just seen. As a regular watcher of the home side, living now within 300 metres of the stadium, I had no doubts within my mind that Ajax would have far more than enough quality and strength in depth to see them off, even without top-scorer Kasper Dolberg who was ruled out with a groin injury.

That perhaps was the first domino to fall in an unbelievable series of events against Peter Bosz’s side. The second? Feyenoord’s late comeback away to Heerenveen, just when it looked like the Fries club would lend a vital helping hand ahead of De Klassiker.

Back to Kralingen, where Bertrand Traore started up front for Ajax, and Matthijs de Ligt retained his place in defence just days after his first call-up to the Oranje side for the upcoming internationals. Fellow wonderkid Justin Kluivert joined the starting 11, in place of the crocked Dolberg.

It was 17-year-old De Ligt though who was heavily involved in the action early on as he made an excellent last ditch challenge to prevent Mike van Duinen getting in on goal.

Sometimes a tackle can be as good as a goal, or an assist. This was such an occasion. A truly magnificent sliding tackle, timed to perfection from a youngster playing well beyond his years and looking ever more like a future superstar.

But on a day where things kept going wrong, ten minutes later the unthinkable happened. De Ligt made a huge error to give away a goal, playing a wild pass behind the defence and straight into the path of Excelsior frontman Mike van Duinen. The forward needed a little more help though. Incredibly he found it, as his wayward strike was deflected perfectly into the far corner of the net off the unfortunate Kenny Tete, who had dived in with an attempted block. 1-0 Excelsior.

It felt as though you could hear the entire city of Rotterdam celebrate.

Six minutes later, the celebrations were put on hold. Parity was restored as a quick thrown-in down the left was channelled into the path of Hakim Ziyech, whose low cross evaded everyone to fall to Justin Kluivert at the back post. The teenager made no mistake tapping home from 6 yards.

Exactly 10 years and 1 day on from his father Patrick scoring his last goal for de Godenzonen, young Justin had his first in the Eredivisie. A rare beautiful moment in the afternoon, again highlighting just how much Ajax fans must look forward to the future with the incredible level of young talent coming through the ranks.

It suddenly looked like Ajax were back to their fluent best, as De Ligt saw a header tipped over by Warner Hahn. With a fine reflex save, the former Ajacied prevented De Ligt from redeeming himself for his earlier mistake. Ziyech’s free kick then failed to test the keeper as it hit the side-netting, whilst Daley Sinkgraven could not turn home Lasse Schöne’s teasing free kick.

But after the half-time break returned an Ajax side lacking fluency, rhythm and confidence. The midfield struggled to present opportunities to the forwards, and the home players continued to come out on top of the physical battles in the middle of the park.

If anything, Excelsior created the best chances, with van Duinen blasting over from close range and Onana called into action to superbly deny a wide open Hicham Faik at the far post. Only in extra time did Ajax get a pair of clear chances to win the game. Kluivert received the best opportunity, but he sliced an effort wide after breaking into the area, before Warner Hahn denied Amin Younes who could not connect cleanly with a loose ball in the box.

As the final whistle blew, the 11 Ajax players sank to their knees on the Woudestein turf. It was a crushing blow to their title hopes, and they realised they had not done themselves, the Ajax fans or the club justice with their performance. They knew how costly this result was.

Speaking to the press after the game, manager Peter Bosz said, “I am extremely disappointed. There are no excuses. Not the pitch nor last Thursday’s game. We should have won.”

On whether the title race was over though, he gave a defining answer. “No.”

Ajax now enter the international break in the worst possible state. 6 points behind, De Klassieker can no longer be used as an opportunity to leapfrog the leaders. If Feyenoord had one hand on the trophy before, they now have 3 fingers of the other hand on there too. It is a must, must-win game for Peter Bosz and his side, who cannot yet give up the chase with over a month of the season remaining, and must also ensure they at least protect 2nd position from the challenge of PSV Eindhoven.