It was a fixture which made some great promises, all of which were fulfilled. Even on points and looking to get an advantage over their rivals in the title race, Sunday’s Klassieker came with more spice than it needed as Feyenoord and Ajax squared up for the first time this season.
Ajax, buoyed by their midweek heroics in the 3-1 win over Manchester City, were looking to cap off an exceptional week by beating their archrivals in the crucial tie. The build-up, although not as fierce as on previous occasions, was intense. Frank de Boer felt obliged to put pressure on the referee by insisting his side had been victims of weak performances from officials in their recent trips to Rotterdam. He pondered whether or not Bas Nijhuis was up to the challenge of keeping a clear head when 48,000 Feyenoord fans (away fans are not allowed to attend these games) bear down on him and call for a penalty or a red card. Was he strong enough? De Boer was anxious to know. Meanwhile, Feyenoord coach Ronald Koeman pointed out the vulnerability of his opponents. They had let slip a two goal lead to draw 3-3 with Heracles the previous week and the young, fresh backline had thus far been unconvincing. The 49-year-old, unbeaten in a Klassieker as a coach, it seemed, had picked out a weak spot in his opponents. He knew exactly how to hit them, his remarks suggested.
The game got off to a bright start. Ajax, as usual, dominated possession and moved it around in typical enchanting fashion and they took the lead after just 12 minutes. Ryan Babel, who had an otherwise poor game, drove towards goal from the left flank and played a delightful through ball to Eriksen who squeezed past Stefan de Vrij, making his first appearance since August, before slotting home.
Feyenoord, although momentarily stunned, quickly recovered and pulled level 11 minutes later. Wesley Verhoek whipped the ball across the face of goal and for a moment it seemed that the danger had passed as it flew past Lex Immers in the centre but teenage debutant Jean-Paul Boetius was perfectly placed at the back post to send it into the net.
From then on, the game only intensified.
De Jong restored Ajax’s lead early in the second half and suddenly, Feyenoord were left chasing the match and had no option but to attack.
Immers saw three shots sail over the bar whilst Graziano Pelle had a header kept out and De Vrij looked to have done enough to beat Kenneth Vermeer when he deflected Clasie’s free-kick towards goal but the Ajax goalkeeper did incredibly well to slap it away and eliminate the danger. Vermeer has been in fantastic form under De Boer. Once a laughing stock, the 26-year-old has flourished in recent months and has been key in Ajax maintaining their unbeaten start to the Eredivisie campaign. Although a blunder never seems far away, the 26-year-old has been immense at all stages. He has been exemplary in the Champions League and his domestic form has been exceptional, too. The goalkeeper has been vital in Ajax maintaining their unbeaten start to the season, especially in preventing his side from going behind in the 3-3 draw against Heracles last week. On Sunday, the player, whose performances have seen him work his way into the plans of Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal, proved a reliable last line of defence for Frank de Boer’s side as his superb saves ensured the Amsterdam giants remained ahead as his goal was peppered with shots.
Feyenoord increased the pressure on their opponents even further, forcing Ajax back as the reigning Eredivisie champions had to sacrifice their desire to play the game in the opposition half for a more defensive approach.
The game was not without controversy as Ajax soon found themselves a man down. With De Boer’s men already on the back foot, the red card dealt to Niklas Moisander for a second bookable offence came as a crushing blow, leaving them without a key player, boosting the home side’s confidence as the heat was turned up a few degrees in De Kuip. The Pride of the South had a chance to equalise immediately after the Finn’s dismissal when Clasie sent the resultant free-kick into the box towards Bruno Martins Indi but the defender’s header went wide.
Despite the numerical disadvantage, Ajax remained strong defensively. Their incredibly fresh backline had resembled a group of seasoned veterans on Wednesday night and, even without Moisander, they did so again on Sunday but as the game wore on they were whittled down and Feyenoord eventually reaped the benefits of their persistence. Pelle received a Martins Indi ball inside the box with his back to goal and in one smooth movement he controlled it, turned and volleyed into the top corner, leaving Vermeer with no chance and Toby Alderweireld, his marker, still trying to work out what had happened.
It was all square again. But Feyenoord weren’t finished yet. With four minutes added on, they felt they had time for another and, spurred on by the 48,000 Rotterdam-natives in attendance, they began to push forward again in search of a crushing blow to clinch the vital three points against their fierce rivals.
Then, on 93 minutes, with Feyenoord camped around the Ajax box, Ruben Schaken sent a cross into to danger zone. Pelle, the towering figure, rose up to meet it from six yards.
Could it be the winner?
It flew towards goal with great speed. Vermeer jumped. Koeman jumped. The 48,000 fans jumped. But only Vermeer would return to earth with a smile. The goalkeeper, once a laughing stock, was now a hero.