After their midweek heroics guided them to the Europa League semi-finals, Ajax approached Sunday’s match against rivals PSV with the intent of maintaining their surprise late push for a continental and domestic double.
But travelling to Eindhoven just days after two arduous hours of madness in Gelsenkirchen proved too much for a young side who failed to get near the level which helped cut the gap between them and Feyenoord in recent weeks.
A point separated Peter Bosz's side and Eredivisie leaders Feyenoord before the day started, but the latter’s 2-0 win in Arnhem meant Ajax needed three points to stay in the title race.
With 20 goals scored in their previous six matches, things had been coming together nicely for a starting XI with an average age of 23 and that has just two first-team players over the age of 26 – Lasse Schone, 30, and Nick Viergever, 27.
“Everything is possible,” Bosz said after Thursday’s game, but PSV put an end to that illusion on Sunday thanks to a stunning free-kick from Jurgen Locadia 25 minutes in.
Whereas they were overpowered by Schalke for the most part on Thursday and had their tactical deficiencies exposed, this performance was a case of failing to get going for a side trying to battle on two fronts.
Anxious, slow and unable to free up attackers when pushing against the defence, Ajax hardly threatened in the game and consistently conceded needless fouls by diving into challenges they were never going to win.
A tiredness of body and mind was hindering them, Bosz said after the game. “I wasn’t satisfied at all with our passes,” he added, but it was around the box that Ajax were particularly flaccid.
The visitors finished the game with 13 shots, but only two of those were on target and just one came from inside the box. PSV did not overly impress, but they were more opportunistic and were also able to rely on Ajax creating a few chances for them.
Steven Bergwijn should have doubled the lead in the second half when he ran onto 17-year-old Matthias De Ligt’s weak pass back to Andre Onana, only to see his shot saved. In the final seconds, Joshua Brenet had a golden chance which was stopped by the goalkeeper too.
The difference was that Ajax had no such opportunities. Even in their brightest moments, the necessary passes around the box were easily cut out, meaning star striker Kasper Dolberg, 19, was completely nullified, having just one shot and making 15 passes.
The Ajax players most often on the ball were their four defenders, as they built up slowly and without any real intent.
Bertrand Traore’s injury in the first half and Amin Younes’ inability to get involved showed they were still recovering from the midweek clash and led to two substitutions before the second period started.
Replacements Justin Kluivert and 20-year-old January signing David Neres looked capable of adding a spark, with Davy Klaassen finding the Brazilian with a through ball on the right side before Hakim Ziyech’s long pass opened space for the charging Kluivert.
Neres, who did not play against Schalke, looked particularly bright and should have started, given he had more touches in 45 minutes than Dolberg did in 90, but even with his tenacity, they had no luck in bringing the ball into dangerous areas, as PSV’s defence did well to close them out.
The Eindhoven side were worthy of the win, but that the decisive goal came from a set-piece was fitting.
The result sees Ajax sit four points behind Feyenoord, who will likely wrap up the title in two weeks when they take on city neighbours Excelsior, while PSV sit three behind the capital side with two matches left.
With a first European semi-final in 20 years coming up, the end of the season can still be a positive one for the Dutch giants, but this team is much too young and fresh for a European and domestic double.