PSV 0 – 2 Ajax: Déjà vu for Cocu & Co as Arek and Anwar Send Ajax to the Top
The aftermath of PSV vs Ajax feels a lot like the same fixture at the end of last season, where PSV had the lion’s share of possession, significantly more shots on goal and still lost by a 2-goal deficit, with Anwar El Ghazi sealing the deal for the Amsterdam side, who broke out of their usual, sideway-pass-heavy style to turn on the substance and get the result.
Clad in their striking Stabilo-fluoroscent green kits, Ajax’s start to the game was equally bright and the opening goal, one for the season highlight reel. A great cross from Joel Veltman (who has adapted immaculately well to the rightback role in Kenny Tete’s absence) found the head of Arek Milik, who had slipped in behind the PSV defence, and the Polish striker directed the ball into the corner of the net and beyond PSV’s midweek tragic hero, Jeroen Zoet. Milik had joked a few weeks earlier that he was only preferred in matches against lower league opposition, but having been given the nod today, he did well to nod Ajax into the lead, only around a minute in.
A few minutes later, Gudelj floated up a pass to the charging Davy Klaassen, but before the Ajax captain could make anything of it, it was hooked away by Moreno. Naturally, after a few prods by Ajax, PSV snapped awake and started moving around better, and with more purpose.
The game opened up and around the 10-minute mark, Locadia tried to send in a cross from the left, but the ball struck Bazoer’s hand on the edge of the box. Rightfully, nothing was given because it came from too close by and the midfielder could not react quickly to remove his hand.
Unfortunately, he could not react quickly enough to Guardado’s movement in midfield either, as the Mexican started having a growing influence on proceedings in the central area, spraying out balls and making smart runs. Minutes later, an overhead pass from Pröpper was met by de Jong on the bounce from a very tight angle and Cillessen parried away, but Locadia could not find the target. The vice versa would happen in the second half, as around the hour mark, Locadia had a good shot on goal blocked by Cillessen, only for de Jong to blast the ball into the stands behind the goal.
Meanwhile, a host of contentious refereeing decisions occurred around the halfway mark of the first half. First, Narsingh and Dijks burst shoulder-to-shoulder into the Ajax box and in the tussle, Narsingh went to ground, but Bjorn Kuipers deemed it (correctly, as replays showed) too little contact for a penalty. Right after this, Guardado went into the book for hacking Dijks down before he could start a counter.
And right after this, Guardado himself was on the receiving end as he skipped past the Ajax defence and into a good position, but was clumsily brought down by Bazoer, who had a tough time with the Mexican throughout the game. This very well could have been a penalty on a different occasion, but Kuipers chose to give a corner instead, this time.
But the action didn’t end there, as immediately following this, Jetro Willems brought down Mike van der Hoorn in an extremely cynical challenge, that could have been a direct sending off, but only resulted in a yellow for the young leftback.
PSV continued to apply the pressure and by the half-hour mark, the Ajax midfield had surrendered most to all control, as Pröpper featured as a main driving force behind PSV’s chances. In quick succession, Locadia, Propper and Moreno had good opportunities to equalise, but lacked the finishing touch. It is possible that they could have confused themselves with Ajax, since the lack of a quality final ball despite copious amounts of possession is usually an Ajax thing.
As Veltman went into the book, the PSV onslaught, which was already more focused down his side, ensued as they overloaded the flank with Locadia and Narsingh frequently coming in and out, while Willems and van Ginkel offered more ammunition in that area.
And yet the guns could not fire, and it was Ajax who had the best chances to score and extend their lead.
First, Amin Younes broke on the counter and supplied a sumptuous pass to the feet of Milik, but the striker tried to be cute and lob it over Zoet, who read it well and blocked the shot. Next, right at the end of injury time in the first half, Schöne whipped in a freekick, which was again met by Milik, who instead of wrapping up a hattrick and wheeling away by now, managed to shoot wide from 2 yards out.
The second half began with Ajax straight out of the blocks again, as Dijks took a shot from distance, but may have done better justice by passing to Younes in a better position. Then, as per, PSV snapped out of their nap again and resumed control of the game, throwing in crosses and passes and shots against the Ajax defence.
At the hour mark, Locadia and Dijks collided when going up for an aerial challenge for the ball, which left an impact on both, but Locadia worse so in his ankle. The attacker had to limp off the pitch as Lestienne came on, which raises some concern for his place in the Dutch squad for the upcoming friendlies.
In the 67th minute, PSV managed to find the back of the net thanks to some subpar defending from Mitchell Dijks, but Narsingh’s goal was ruled offside and the clearly exhausted home side had to start from scratch, again.
With 20 minutes to go, Frank de Boer turned to his bench and made a like-for-like double change with El Ghazi and Fischer coming on for Younes and Schöne. Just three minutes later, Bazoer slipped a pass to Milik, who played it first time to El Ghazi. With his first involvement of the game, Anwar El Ghazi hit the ball from just outside the box and found the back of the net, as the whole of Eindhoven heaved a collective sigh.
They knew it was coming. They’d seen it before. This happened last year.
Only, the crucial difference now, is that PSV are not leading the table by 11 points, like they were last season. With only 6 games left, this loss means they lose their top spot, as Ajax jump ahead by two points and better goal difference too. The Eindhovenaren played a mentally and physically draining match midweek vs Atletico and Cocu faced the dilemma of rotating some of his players or going along with the regular starters. The latter was the one he chose and may have cost them this game, as the lack of freshness and sharpness was evident in many PSV players as the second half wore on. Generally considered the best attack of the Eredivisie, their record of having scored in 54 consecutive league matches came to an end today. Against what is essentially, Ajax’s last-choice first team central defensive partnership of Van der Hoorn and Viergever.
All is not lost yet for PSV and since both teams have a rather similar run-in towards the end, all they may need is one slip-up from Ajax to capitalise on.
On the other hand, Godenzonen have had a bumpy season, with a great start followed by slightly faltering form after the winter break, where they surrendered the Eredivisie lead to PSV. But recently, they seem to have found some mojo back as even if their performances are sometimes lacking, Milik finds himself in great form and is able to finish relatively consistently. While the likes of Bazoer, Gudelj and Dijks still have much room to improve in the coming games, the signs are good for De Boer being able to identify his winning formula v PSV and replicate the model successfully again, this season. When Ajax unshackle themselves from the dogma of possession-lathered, sideway-movement-filled football, they can actually pull off remarkable team unit performances and today was one such occasion. In what may be his final season in charge of Ajax, De Boer would do well to leave the Dutch capital with another Eredivisie to his name – and one won against worthy opponents.
The Eredivisie season is well-primed for one of it’s more exciting title race finishes after a few years of Dutch football’s version of a Mercedes 1-2. This one could go right down to the wire, and we hope the general excitement of the league does continue, so that we can watch a longer Eredivisie highlights reel over the summer and convince ourselves that Euro 2016 did not deserve Vincent Janssen and Timo Letschert and Jetro Willems.