Rotated Arsenal side lose out to Crystal Palace

Unai Emery

Unai Emery opted to rotate his starting line up against Crystal Palace. Arsenal were made to pay though, as goals from Christian Benteke, Wilfried Zaha and James McArthur cancelled out strikes from Mesut Özil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, handing Palace the victory.

Emery clearly decided he needed to give some of his players a rest following Thursday night’s 1-0 win away at Napoli, which had secured the club’s place in the Europa League semi final.

There was a total of six changes. Bernd Leno was back between the sticks for the Gunners, as is usual for league games, replacing Petr Cech who is their cup keeper. Shkodran Mustafi and Konstantinos Mavropanos replaced Nacho Monreal and suspended Sokratis Papastathopoulos in the back three. Matteo Guendouzi and Mohamed Elneny replaced Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira at the base of the midfield, while Mesut Özil replaced Aaron Ramsey.

Perhaps the most surprising addition of the lot was Carl Jenkinson, who was making his first competitive start in a red and white shirt since February. It was also just the second time Mavropanos has started this campaign. Neither made an impact though, as they were both brought off at half time to be replaced by Alex Iwobi and Maitland-Niles, with Mavropanos having already been carded.

Arsenal will have seen this loss as a wasted opportunity to solidify their place in the Champions League places. A victory would have taken the Gunners two points ahead of third placed Tottenham Hotspur and three ahead of fourth placed Chelsea with just four games of the Premier League season remaining. They are still clinging onto that fourth spot though, as they lead Chelsea on goal difference.

That Emery decided to make so many changes in this match, rather than resting men against Napoli -especially as his side already had a two goal lead from the first leg- could show that he is prioritising the Europa League. His record with Sevilla in Europe’s secondary competition is well known and it is now the only trophy he can possibly win in his maiden Arsenal campaign.

He will be wary of Arsenal losing their place in the top four though, as to do so would put added pressure on his side winning the Europa League. If the Gunners slip up and fail to secure Champions League football for next season, it would mean missing out on a spot in Europe’s biggest competition for a third year in a row. This is something they surely can’t afford to happen.

The Arsenal manager will now need to perform a balancing act, regarding who he rests and starts, if his team are to fight on both fronts for the remainder of the season. The Gunners have two Premier League games in a week -against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leicester City- before their Europa League semi final first leg against Valencia on May 2nd.

Many will argue that he has done well since taking over from Arsène Wenger, though his side’s performance between now and the end of May will dictate how his first season is remembered.

 

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Eden Hazard used as striker as Chelsea lost against Liverpool

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Many Chelsea supporters have called for Callum Hudson-Odoi to be given more first team opportunities. Maurizio Sarri has finally begun to oblige, putting his faith in the 18-year-old in recent games. However, this has brought up another conundrum for the Italian manager: with Willian in fine form and Eden Hazard being Chelsea’s main man, it’s difficult to drop either of them.

Rather than doing that, Sarri started all three today, with Hazard playing as a makeshift striker, while Hudson-Odoi and Willian operated from the wings. The plan of action could have been deployed because Sarri didn’t believe Gonzalo Higuain or Oliver Giroud weren’t up to the job against Liverpool or simply to get all three wingers into the side. The only thing that is certain is it didn’t work.

Joel Matip and Virgil van Dijk marshalled Hazard very well throughout the game, as he struggled to make his usual impact. It was only when Hudson-Odoi was substituted for Higuain in the 56th minute, which meant Hazard was moved back to the wing, that the Belgian began to thrive. With Chelsea failing to get on the score sheet in a 2-0 at Anfield, it was too little too late. However, there is definitely a lesson to be learned.

Hazard has played as the central figure of Chelsea’s attacks in other games during this season, with varying levels of success. He scored twice in a win against Watford from the centre and also assisted twice against Manchester City from the same position. However, with Hazard being Chelsea’s greatest and most threatening player, he should surely be deployed in the position he plays his best football in, which is undoubtedly from the wing.

As well as potentially detracting from Hazard’s game, playing him in a central role can also be of detriment to his team mates. While he has impeccable control, he doesn’t have the height of someone like Giroud, meaning his team mates don’t have the option of clipping in a high ball for him to battle for in the air.

While Sarri does like to have his team play a passing game, which involves keeping the ball on the floor, Jorginho likes to send a dinked ball into the front man to move the play on. Hazard is usually the beneficiary of these kinds of balls, as his link up play with whoever is occupying the striker spot allows him to get in behind defences once the initial ball has been flicked on.

Today’s loss means that Chelsea are relying on Arsenal and Manchester United losing their games in hand to retain their top four status. With four more Premier League matches remaining, one of which will see them travel to Old Trafford, the Blues can’t afford anymore slip ups if they’re going to get back into the Champions League through the Premier League.

Though before they focus on the league run in, Chelsea will face Slavia Prague in the Europa League on Thursday, a competition which offers them an alternative route into Europe’s primary competition.

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Sarri to put more trust in Chelsea’s youngsters?

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One of the things Maurizio Sarri has been most criticised for this season is his unwillingness to trust youngsters. Callum Hudson-Odoi was the main absentee who got people talking about this, but there are other examples within the Chelsea team.

With the potential of a transfer ban looming, if Sarri remains as Chelsea manager past this season he will need to start using the talented academy graduates at his disposal. Throughout the campaign it seemed as though this was something the Italian wasn’t happy to do, though Thursday’s win against Brighton & Hove Albion could be the signal for change.

Sarri had declared Hudson-Odoi ready to play shortly before the Brighton game. He ended up giving the teenager his first ever Premier League start, while also giving Ruben Loftus-Cheek his first league start of 2019.

Both players duly repaid his trust. Hudson-Odoi assisted the opening goal of the game when he breezed part Anthony Knockaert, before firing a low ball into Olivier Giroud who bundled the ball home.

Having scored a controversial winner against Cardiff City, Loftus-Cheek was the scorer of Chelsea’s final goal as they won 3-0. He received the ball from Eden Hazard on the turn before calmly side footing it into the top corner from outside the box.

Both of the goal contributions from the Chelsea youngsters were executed with supreme skill and confidence. They must have seen this game as a chance to prove they should be in the line up for the latter stages of this season; they certainly took the opportunity to show what they’re capable of.

The question now is whether Sarri will continue to play them from the start of games in the league. Both players have impressed numerous times in the Europa League and with their latest performance, it would seem they’ve done everything possible to force their manager’s hand.

Tomorrow night will see Chelsea host West Ham United, with a chance to go from fifth to third in the table- though Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal will both have a game in hand on them. Each match between now and the end of the season will be vital for Chelsea going forward, as well as for Sarri’s job security. If he decides to play the youngsters against West Ham and beyond it will be a sign that he truly trusts them.

There is of course plenty more talent outside of Loftus-Cheek and Hudson-Odoi, which Sarri can utilise this season and next if he wishes. The likes of Andreas Christensen and Ethan Ampadu, 22 and 18 years old respectively, are likely to be deployed in the Europa League and could be used sparingly in the league.

Looking ahead to next season, players such as Tammy Abraham, Reece James and Mason Mount -who have all impressed on loan in the Championship this campaign- could all be brought back into the Chelsea fold.

Chelsea have had an incredible talent production line for years, which has been criminally under used by those in the Chelsea hot seat. Hudson-Odoi and Loftus-Cheek could be heading up the group that finally make their mark on the first team.

 

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Denis Suarez hits back at critics

Denis Suarez

Denis Suarez has played just 91 minutes of football out of a possible 900 since joining Arsenal on loan from Barcelona. The most time he’s played in one match was 25 minutes on his debut against Manchester City and there have been four times where he hasn’t come off the bench at all.

Having not started a single match, many tongues in the English media began wagging. The suggestion from some was that Suarez wasn’t impressing manager Unai Emery in training, which was the supposed reason behind his lack of time on the pitch.

However, the Spaniard recently hit back at those suggestions on his Instagram story, saying: “Don’t talk about my workouts if you have no idea”. This isn’t the first time he’s publicly condemned talk of his shortcomings. When rumours arose that Arsenal wanted to send him back to Barcelona, he responded, again through his Instagram story: “Let them keep talking” with a shushing emoji.

That he has been so vocal and ready to fight for his place in the Arsenal team should be an encouraging sign for the Gunners faithful. With eight matches coming up in April, Emery will need to rotate his squad to keep them fresh if he is to battle on all fronts. This means that Suarez is likely to be needed. Having him fired up should help him to give his best when he is called upon.

This is already a man with a point to prove. He had impressed while at Barcelona and was supposedly a player who would represent the Catalonian giants for years to come. However, he was unable to get into the team and was sold to Villareal with a buy back clause. Having impressed in yellow, Barcelona activated that clause. He was unable to force his way into the team though, which brought along his loan to Arsenal.

With Suarez now 25-years-old he will need to prove himself in the next few years if he is to make it at the top level. This puts the importance of his loan move to Arsenal into context; if he is able to succeed in North London then this could be the springboard for him to reach the levels expected of him during the early stages of his career.

If he is unable to get into the team, this will surely be seen as a signal of his career stalling. Of course, even if his time in red and white doesn’t turn out to be a success there will be time for him to get back on track. However, having been so close to reaching the top he won’t want to take another step back.

His first chance to claim a place in the Gunners’ starting line up will come on Tuesday in a friendly against Al Nasr. Following that, Arsenal’s first competitive game back following the international break will come against Newcastle United on Monday 1st April. Having ensured his voice would be heard off the pitch, Suarez will be hoping he’ll get the chance to make his mark on it.

 

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Olivier Giroud is being under appreciated at Chelsea

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Olivier Giroud’s main reason for leaving Arsenal in 2018 was that he wasn’t happy with the lack of game time he was getting in North London. Though a year on he’s in a pretty similar position, just in Chelsea’s blue rather than red and white.

Having scored a hat trick against Dynamo Kyiv on Thursday, he was put back on Chelsea’s bench for today’s 2-0 loss against Everton. He’s the highest scorer in the Europa League but hasn’t started a single league game in 2019. This all comes after he was laughed at by many for not getting a shot on target during the 2018 World Cup, despite being one of the most influential players in France’s winning squad. He also had impressive link up play with Eden Hazard in the early stages of this season.

He has started just six Premier League matches in the current campaign. The fact that he is in his current position after numerous important contributions feeds into the idea that he is currently being under appreciated and underplayed at club level. Though he has managed to keep his place in France’s national team, as he was called up for their imminent Euro 2020 qualifiers against Moldova and Iceland.

Chelsea have had their fair share of striker troubles since Diego Costa’s departure in 2017. This makes it even more surprising that Giroud has been given so few chances to establish himself as Chelsea’s first choice striker. Maurizio Sarri has even brought Gonzalo Higuain in on loan and put him straight into the team ahead of the Frenchman.

He’s arguably not had the desired impact, as his only goals in the 10 games he’s played in Chelsea’s blue came against Huddersfield Town and Fulham- who are both in the relegation zone. Giroud has started just five matches in the same amount of time but has hit the back of the net five times.

Chelsea have had a kind run in the Europa League, which has arguably helped Giroud’s record in the competition. His team mates Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have also impressed on the European stage this season. This hasn’t been enough for any of the three to be given regular time in the league though.

The January transfer window saw questions begin to circulate as to whether Hudson-Odoi would look to go elsewhere, with Bayern Munich showing interest. There have been indications that a similar situation could occur with Giroud, as the striker recently said there was “no chance” he’ll except his role as a bit part player going forward.

At 32-years-old, Giroud is beginning to approach the latter stages of his career. If he is to get more playing time at the highest level then he will likely have to do so soon. If Higuain continues to fail to hit the back of the net then Giroud should be given the chance to step in. Meanwhile, he will continue to the lead the line in the Europa League, with the next game in the competition coming against Slavia Praha on April 11th.

 

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Arsenal overcome Manchester United

Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal - Premier League

It’s been a mixed few days for Arsenal. Thursday saw the Gunners lose out to Rennes, but they recovered from that setback to beat Manchester United 2-0 today.

Thursday night started well for Arsenal, as Alex Iwobi put them ahead after just four minutes. However, Sokratis’ first half dismissal marked the beginning of the Gunners’ capitulation, as goals from Benjamin Bourigeaud and Ismaila Sarr as well as an own goal from Nacho Monreal gave Rennes a two goal lead to take into the second leg.

Meanwhile, Manchester United had one of their greatest nights in years on Wednesday. They overturned a two goal deficit at the Parc de Princes to overcome PSG in the Champions League thanks to Rashford’s late penalty.

However, there was a role reversal for the teams this afternoon. Arsenal’s character is often questioned but they showed plenty of that today to overcome Thursday’s mishap, against a side who have been prolific opponents since Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s arrival.

There was a similarity between this game and the one in France though, as the Gunners established an early lead. Granit Xhaka struck a speculative effort from outside the box 12 minutes into the match. Many would have expected David de Gea to be equal to it -considering the strike wasn’t carrying an extraordinary amount of pace- but the swerve the Swiss international put on the ball fooled the keeper. The ball hit the back of the net, putting the Gunners 1-0 up.

The Red Devils did have chances to bring the scores level. However, the likes of Romelu Lukaku, who had been so prolific in Paris, were unable to put their chances away. In the 69th minute they were made to pay for their lack of clinical edge when Fred was adjudged to have fouled Alexandre Lacazette in the box. The Frenchman gave the ball to his strike partner Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who had missed from the spot in the dying moments of the recent North London Derby draw. He made no mistake this time though, as he coolly passed the ball into the net, sending de Gea the wrong way.

Despite the game being fairly even there was never the feeling that United would get back into the game following that moment. There were no more goals in the game, as the Gunners won 2-0, inflicting Solskjær’s first league defeat as Manchester United manager.

This result sees Arsenal go fourth in the league with just seven games of the season remaining. They aren’t able to look too far forward yet though, as Thursday sees them partake in another incredibly important match. They will play the second leg of their Europa League Round of 16 tie against Rennes, needing to come from behind as they did in the last round against BATE Borisov.

Following on from that, their next Premier League match will be at home against Newcastle United on April 1st, after the international break.

 

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Kepa returns to Chelsea’s starting line up

Kepa

Kepa Arrizabalaga returned to the Chelsea starting line up today. He was dropped for Chelsea’s 2-0 derby win against Tottenham Hotspur, following the League Cup shenanigans surrounding his substitution- or lack of it. However, he was reinstated for the club’s second London derby in two games, as they won 2-1 against Fulham.

There was a shaky start from the stopper, as in the 18th minute he spilled a ball into the box which should have been taken easily. He got away with his error though, as Ryan Babel (who’d been the ball’s target) turned his back on Kepa. This allowed the Spaniard to retrieve the ball before any further embarrassment could be caused.

10 minutes after that incident, with the score now at 1-0 after Gonzalo Higuain’s opening goal, Kepa made a terrific save. Aleksandar Mitrovic had fired a powerful header towards the top corner, but Kepa was equal to it and tipped it over the bar. However, he won’t have been happy with what followed. Ryan Sessegnon played the ensuing corner short to Babel who sent the ball towards the back post. Calum Chambers was found completely unmarked and scored with a first time finish that the goalkeeper had no chance of stopping.

Jorginho put the men in blue ahead in the 31st minute, giving Chelsea the lead going into half time. Kepa didn’t have that much to do for the majority of the second half, as Chelsea kept Fulham’s attacking talents at bay for large periods of time. The goalkeeper looked comfortable on the ball, as he usually does, passing the ball out from the back in the way Maurizio Sarri desires. He also saved efforts from Tom Cairney and Joe Bryan convincingly.

It wasn’t until the 88th minute when he was truly challenged again. Fulham substitute Floyd Ayite had made a darting run behind the Chelsea defence. The Togo international hooked the ball towards Mitrovic who powered a header towards the goal. The Serbian had plenty of space to aim for, but while it was a good effort, he placed his shot just within Kepa’s range. The Spaniard palmed the ball away from goal well, getting it to safety.

Chelsea were given another defensive scare in the 94th minute. Sessegnon had latched onto the ball in the box after Luciano Vietto had nudged it towards goal. The young Englishman finished well, sending the ball into the net with a first touch finish. However, Chelsea’s three points were saved by the linesman, as he raised his flag flagged for offside.

There were no more real chances in the game and Kepa marked his return to the starting line up with a win, even if he hadn’t quite managed a clean sheet. He may have got back into the team, but it is likely he’ll immediately be back out of it again- though this time not for disciplinary reasons. Chelsea host Dynamo Kyiv in the Europa League on Thursday, meaning Willy Caballero is likely to temporarily return to the Chelsea goal, before Kepa retakes his place between the sticks for Chelsea’s next league match, at home against Wolves.

 

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Manuel Lanzini returns from injury

Manuel Lanzini

West Ham supporters were feeling a bit worried when they went 1-0 down early on against Fulham. However, goals from Javier Hernandez, Issa Diop and Michail Antonio handed the Hammers a 3-1 victory.

The three points –which keeps them in touch with seventh place- will be gratefully received. There is something which will give Hammers fans even more joy though: the return of Manuel Lanzini. The Argentinian international replaced Felipe Anderson in the 76th minute for his first involvement in any game this season.

He had been on the side lines for eight months after rupturing his ACL during Argentina’s preparations for the World Cup in Russia. The timing of the incident was as unfortunate as could be. He’d worked so hard to force his way into the thinking of manager Jorge Sampaoli with dazzling performances in a West Ham shirt.

There were initial fears that he’d miss the entirety of this campaign due to the severity of the injury, so to see him back already is a massive bonus for everyone involved with the club.

The man nicknamed ‘The Jewell’ did show slight signs of rust on his return, as he took too long on the ball when offered a chance in the box and was dispossessed. He also tripped Dennis Odoi in the 83rd minute, picking up a yellow card. When it is considered how long he’s been out of the game he can be let off for needing a little acclimatisation time.

Following the game, he posted a photo of the moment he entered the play. His caption ended with a statement saying: “I want to say thanks to all the fans, I love you”. The feeling is certainly reciprocated by the supporters for a man who is amongst the most technically gifted at the club.

He’s been winning West Ham supporters’ hearts with his skill and trickery since moving to East London from UAE based club Al Jazira on loan in 2015 and permanently the following year. It’s after Dimitri Payet’s departure that he propelled himself to fan favourite status though, as he took over the role of the central creative hub in the side at a time when one was needed more than ever.

It will be hoped that he will now be able to return to a similar role at the tip of Manuel Pellegrini’s three-man midfield. With talents like Anderson and Samir Nasri in the side, there is cause for excitement in regards to the style of football that West Ham will be playing throughout the rest of the season.

It is this that makes the timing of Lanzini’s return so brilliant for everyone at the club. While the initial feeling of having him back on the pitch is nice for supporters, there is a much more important element. He’s coming into the side shortly after West Ham’s disastrous January, but with the Hammers in rich form. The club can still push for seventh place, which could result in a Europa League spot for next season. The feel good factor and technical ability which Lanzini’s return brings the Hammers could be just what the club needs to ensure they get there.

 

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Ajax’s rollercoaster of a week

Erik Ten Hag

Every week seems to be an important one for Ajax at the moment, but this one was even more significant than most. It started in the Champions League and ended with an Eredivisie tie against NAC Breda which was made more significant by PSV’s result the day before.

Wednesday’s Champions League tie at home to Real Madrid was Ajax’s first knockout game in the competition since the 2004/05 season. They weren’t intimidated by the occasion at all though, as they dominated large periods of the play. They created chances as well, with Dušan Tadić hitting the post and Hakim Ziyech having a clear chance saved well by Thibaut Courtois.

Ajax were even the first to have the ball in the net, though it was ruled out for offside. A corner was sent into the box by Ziyech, Matthijs de Ligt won the initial header which popped up in front of Courtois. The Belgian stopper wasn’t able to catch the ball, as it his his shoulder and Nicolás Tagliafico was the first to react, heading it into the net. However, when VAR was used following the incident it was adjudged that Tadić had impeded Courtois from an offside position when the Argentine headed the ball in.

Despite being on top, Ajax hadn’t managed to get themselves on the score sheet and were punished for that on the hour mark. Vinicius Junior drove with the ball at his feet, worked his way into the box before cutting across both centre backs and laying the ball off to Karim Benzema who finished the move off clinically to make the score 1-0 to Real Madrid.

Ajax struck back in the 75th minute when David Neres was played in behind the Madrid defence and cut the ball back to Ziyech. When the ball reached the Moroccan he made no mistake, side footing the ball past Courtois. However, Real Madrid retook the lead in the 87th minute when Daniel Carvajal’s ball across goal was converted by Marco Asensio. There was some controversy with this though, as Lucas Vasquez appeared to foul Frenkie de Jong off the ball during the build up which wasn’t reviewed by VAR. This means that Ajax now go to Madrid with a deficit to make up.

Once the game was over Ajax’s thoughts will have turned to the Eredivisie despite their frustrations. That means keeping an eye on PSV’s results as well as getting wins of their own at the moment, as Ajax went into the week seven points behind the league leaders.

PSV’s match against Heerenveen was yesterday and gave Ajax plenty of encouragement. The leaders went two goals down for the second game in a row. However, PSV had equalised with a late goal last time out and did so again this time around. This time it was a 95th minute strike from substitute Donyell Malen which earned PSV a draw. Despite them managing to salvage a point, the result meant there was still an opportunity for Ajax to close the gap by two points.

Ajax had to be patient in today’s game, as they were frustrated by NAC Breda’s deep defensive line in the early stages, but they eventually won comfortably. They were gifted their opener in the 38th minute when Ziyech’s free kick was handled by Dorian Dervite in the penalty area. Tadić stepped up to take the penalty and converted it, even with Benjamin van Leer diving the correct way.

The game opened up for Ajax once the first goal went in and they ended up winning 5-0, as Tadić got another, Kasper Dolberg got on the score sheet and NAC Breda deflected two efforts in which were called as own goals.

Ajax will be hoping to close the gap even further when they face ADO Den Haag next Sunday.

Ajax lose further ground on PSV

Andre Onana

Ajax’s Eredivisie title hopes have taken another knock this weekend as they lost to Heracles. They went into yesterday’s game five points behind league leaders PSV Eindhoven. Things could have been even worse for the Ajacied though, as PSV only managed to get a draw in today’s away game against FC Utrecht.

Ajax started their game poorly, giving away a penalty just six minutes in when Daley Blind fouled Joey Konings while trying to retrieve Frenkie de Jong’s misplaced pass. It was Brandley Kuwas who stepped up to take the spot kick for the men in black and white, but Andre Onana dived to his left and got a strong hand on the ball to keep it out with a little help from the post.

Just over 10 minutes later Onana undid his work though as he gifted Heracles the only goal of the game. He attempted to pass the ball out from the back but it was intercepted by Mohammed Osman. The Syrian midfielder gratefully took the chance to put his side ahead, placing the ball into the corner out of the reach of Ajax’s scrambling goalkeeper.

Ajax grew into the game in the second half after their initial struggles. However, they weren’t able to get past German stopper Janis Blaswich, who was in fine form. The pick of his saves came against Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who’d got onto the end of a ball into the box, did a step over to fool the defender before flicking it towards goal- only to find his effort stopped by a strong outstretched arm.

Ajax were left frustrated as the score ended 1-0 to the home side, though their eyes will have quickly turned to today’s PSV match hoping for another shock. It seemed as though that would come as goals from Sander van de Streek and Gyrano Kerk saw FC Utrecht go into half time 2-0 up against the league leaders.

However, PSV came out in the second half and immediately put Utrecht’s goal under sustained pressure. It paid off for them as Luuk de Jong bagged a brace to get the game back on level terms. Ajax could easily have been let off the hook in the dying moments though. Utrecht were controversially denied a penalty despite the use of VAR when Denzel Dumfries slipped in the box and took Simon Gustafson down with him.

These two results mean that Ajax are now six points behind PSV Eindhoven with 13 games of the league season remaining. The two sides will play each other at the end of March in a match which could prove to decide whether the Eredivisie title goes to Amsterdam or Eindhoven at the end of the campaign. However, Ajax will want to make up ground as early as possible and this is the second time since the winter break that they’ve failed to capitalise on a PSV slip up after drawing 4-4 with Heerenveen when PSV drew with FC Emmen in their first game back.

Ajax’s attention will now be turned towards their upcoming Champions League Round of 16 first leg tie against Real Madrid on Wednesday, their first knockout game in the competition since 2005. Their next chance to close the gap on PSV will come when they face NAC Breda on Sunday.