Having taken seven points from three games against the two biggest teams in the Eredivisie, Feyenoord headed into Sunday’s Klassieker with Ajax looking to enhance that record further, go eight points clear of PSV at the top and prove beyond all doubt that they deserve a first league crown in 18 years.
However, when David Neres slotted home for the hosts at the Amsterdam ArenA after 36 minutes to add to Lasse Schone's stunning early opener, it became obvious that Feynoord's title triumph is not a foregone conclusion. On the contrary, the title race is now very much back on.
There are six rounds to go and three points separate Feyenoord from second-placed Ajax, with PSV two points further adrift. However, while the Amsterdam side emerged as the deserved victors from the Klassieker, it could be too late for them to turn the situation around.
Sunday's subdued and sloppy showing was at odds with the Feyenoord team that has been bombarding and overpowering opponents all season despite their flawed tactics. Even at their most turgid and predictable, the leaders' determination and pace usually allows them to get the better of anyone, but Ajax had them pinned in their own half from the beginning and Feyenoord had no energy in attack.
The loss of star striker Nicolai Jorgensen after 10 minutes through a muscle injury was disastrous and their situation was not helped by the fact that his replacement Michiel Kramer unsurprisingly offered nothing until his goal from distance in the 90th minute.
Usually reliant on charging forward through the wings, Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s team were heavily restricted out wide – only once in the league this season have they made less crosses from open play – and their attempts to address the issue changed little.
Van Bronckhorst has his excuses. Feyenoord were deprived of Eljero Elia, Tonny Vilhena and Terence Kongolo, while Jorgensen dropped out early and Rick Karsdorp was replaced at half-time, eventually leaving the stadium on crutches. Furthermore, their leader, Dirk Kuyt, was once again an irrelevance.
It was just not Feyenoord’s day against a much sharper Ajax side.
The key problem for Peter Bosz’s team this term has been in their inability to put games beyond doubt despite having a strong attack. Schone’s astounding free-kick goal two minutes in and David Neres’ strike later in the half suggested this was a turning of a corner for Ajax, but the lack of ruthlessness still haunted them. They had an opportunity to chip away at Feyenoord’s superior goal difference, but passed it up.
They maintained their imposing start, but not their effectiveness. Although the home side had nearly 60 per cent possession in the first-half, it took over 30 minutes for them to pose a real threat from inside the box – Ziyech meeting a rebound from a Justin Kluivert shot but seeing his attempt blocked too at the end of a neat move.
In the absence of striker Kasper Dolberg, it was Bertrand Traore who spearheaded the attack, supported by the daring and thoroughly impressive Kluivert and Neres, making his first start since his €15 million move from Brazil in January.
Traore’s effort cannot be faulted, but his finishing was dreadful and his movement was a cause of Ajax’s lack of presence in the box. When it came to slower attacks, the Burkina Faso international was insistent on dropping deep to look for the ball and run at defenders as opposed to charging into the box in anticipation of a cross – as Dolberg usually does.
Unfortunately, when chances came to him via his preferred method in counter-attacks, he still proved hopeless in front of goal.
As the game wore on, though, Ajax improved. Neres’ goal in the 36th minute was a sound finish after a lovely move and it was the first time that Ajax had got into a really dangerous position in the box.
After the hour mark, Kluivert saw his ball across the face of goal wasted, a promising counter-attack was stopped short as Traore failed to get the shot away and substitute Abdelhak Nouri saw an attempt saved moments before a Davinson Sanchez header was too.
This was a more threatening and energetic Ajax than we have seen from them for most of this season – and mainly in their recent draws against Groningen and Excelsior, which put them in a perilous position heading into this game.
Such a big and deserved win will come as a relief for Bosz and his team. After all, very few sides have been able to cut the Rotterdammers down in such impressive fashion, but the hosts had a lot going in their favour.
Once some of Sunday’s absentees are back in position, Feyenoord will return to their relentless selves. The psychological effect of this defeat is difficult to judge but their siege mentality should see them quickly get back to winning ways.
Conversely, Ajax, despite their strength in attack, have been more at risk of slipping up against weaker teams, and with a newly-resurgent PSV still to come and an ongoing Europa League campaign, they have a hectic schedule ahead of them.
Their title chances are not merely still alive – they have been given a sizeable boost, but their fate is not in their hands.
While Ajax may have shown that they are still willing to push Feyenoord all the way this season, it should still be the unfancied southerners’ year.