As kickoff rapidly approached at the Noordlease Stadion in Groningen, it didn’t take a genius to work out the reason for the 1,000 strong following from Amsterdam suddenly bursting out into a wave of cheers and celebration. As the news from Rotterdam filtered in to the sold out ‘uitvak’ on the second ring of Groningen’s smart home, Ajax fans everywhere began to believe that perhaps this was the day the momentum in the title race finally changed hands.
For the first time since the winter break, Feyenoord had lost. Lowly city rivals Sparta had done the unthinkable and turned over the seemingly unstoppable leaders inside the castle walls. It was game on. But the drama on a truly bizarre weekend of football in the Eredivisie was only just beginning. Instead of cruising to an 8th straight league win and piling the pressure on the faltering Feyenoord, Ajax were themselves to enjoy- for want of a better word- an afternoon full of frustration and controversy at the Euroborg, never the easiest place to pick up points.
Perhaps the first sign that things were not to go to plan came as Riedeweld limped out of the warm-up, forcing the man of the moment De Ligt to step up for his first Eredivisie start, just a week after making his first team debut in the Arena.
The next came when the lively Amin Younes turned his marker and, entering the area, bent an effort that came back off the inside of the far post and rolled agonisingly to safety. Bertrand Traore was at the forefront of the other first-half chances for Ajax. The winger danced in and out of flailing Groningen defenders with ease, almost as if he was floating on air. A well struck drive was beaten clear by the home keeper- and former Ajacied- Sergio Padt, before two more efforts from close range were pulled wide of the target.
After the first – and only – Groningen attempt in the first half via Simon Tibbling (saved by Andre Onana), Hakim Ziyech was unlucky to see his attempt go over Padt’s goal following a quick counter-attack. Halftime- goalless.
10 minutes into the second half, disaster struck. Andrey Onana, the new fans favourite and one of the most in-form players in the Ajax side, chose the worst possible moment to rest on his laurels. Coming out of his area with the ball, Onana jinked past the oncoming Bryan Linssen after selling him an audacious dummy. If Onana though the threat was over, he was wrong.
Dwindling with the ball at his feet, Linssen quickly chased back after the goalkeeper, and just before he could release a pass was caught in possession by the pouncing striker. On went Linssen to slot the ball home into the empty net, 1-0 Groningen.
Replays showed that Linssen had in-fact clipped Onana as he attempted to move the ball on, forcing him to stumble and lose possession. A clear foul missed by referee Bas Nijhuis, whose only explanation to his decision (or lack of one) was the truly bizarre answer: “No one protested. Not the Ajax goalkeeper or any of his team-mates.”
The red-faced Onana, meanwhile, was a little more sympathetic. “I was unlucky,” he told NOS. “It was a foul, but it was also a mistake. The referee’s job is also difficult.” With 40 minutes remaining, and trailing to the hosts, it was now or never if Ajax were to avoid blowing their biggest opportunity yet to get right back into the title race.
Just three minutes after the goal, Lasse Schöne had a golden opportunity to restore parity. The Dane’s shot though seared just over the crossbar. Kasper Dolberg (saved by Padt) and Sinkgraven (heading over) came close, whilst huge penalty appeals for challenges on Sanchez and Dolberg were respectively waved away by Nijhuis, who was- to say the least- not having the best game of his refereeing career.
But finally, after constant pressure had been piled on the Groningen defence, the equaliser came. Captain Davy Klassen, who else, anticipating the low cross from Sinkgraven and expertly turning home inside the far corner to draw Ajax level and set up a grandstand finish.
Whilst one point was of course better than none, Ajax knew it would still be points dropped and a key chance to close the gap having not been taken full advantage of. A winner was imperative to inspire real hope back amongst the fans. There was still enough time for a comeback. Matters were helped further when Groningen were forced to continue with just ten men after a red card for Samir Memisevic. The defender from Bosnia Herzegovina recklessly flew into Sinkgraven and gave Nijhuis no option but to dismiss him.
Ajax though, despite playing in almost an ‘attack v defence’ format in the closing stages, could not force home a winner. There was even one more huge penalty appeal as Traore was hacked down in the box after getting first to a loose ball inside the area, but inexpiably the referee again failed to see the foul and waved play on. Donny Van de Beek, on as a second-half substitute had the final shot of the game, but it was fisted clear by the resolute home stopper Padt, before Schone hacked wildly at the rebound and failed to convert it.
Groningen therefore held on for a point, and had significantly damaged Ajax’s hopes of gaining big ground on the leaders. The Amsterdammers had taken minimal advantage of Feyenoord’s loss at Het Kasteel. As rightly stated by the official club website, “The disappointment at the two lost points was much greater than the satisfaction at earning one.”
So Feyenoord’s lead at the top goes down to 4 points. 9 games are left to play. It promises to be another thrilling, unpredictable end to the Eredivisie season. Even the hardiest gambler would be hard pushed to confidently predict where the title will end up.