Ajax will have gone into their winter break focused on the time they’d get a chance to overtake PSV Eindhoven. Sitting two points behind the league leaders with a superior goal difference, they were in the perfect position to take advantage of any mishaps by Mark van Bommel’s men.
They won’t have expected that opportunity to come as early as the first weekend back. However, the door was opened for them as an injury time equaliser from FC Emmen’s Nicklas Pedersen made the score 2-2 against the champions. Ajax went into their match against Heerenveen at the Johan Cruijff Arena knowing that a win would take them top of the Eredivisie.
They didn’t seem phased by the challenge in the early stages, as they took the lead just 13 minutes into the match. Schone played a short corner before getting the ball back and crossing it into the box. Dusan Tadic found himself completely unmarked just outside the six yard box and side footed the ball first time, sending it beyond goalkeeper Warner Hahn.
This was just the beginning of a whirlwind four minutes, as Heerenveen equalised within a minute. Sam Lammers –who himself is on loan from PSV- received the ball and turned. He managed to force his way past Daley Blind and hit it into the bottom corner to equalise.
Ajax were ahead again just two minutes later. Blind played a cross field pass to Tadic, who played a one-two with Hakim Ziyech. Upon receiving the return pass he got into the box and dinked the ball over the onrushing goalkeeper, restoring his side’s lead.
The score was made 3-1 before the half an hour mark due to calamitous defending from Heerenveen. Schone delivered the ball into the box from a free kick. It wasn’t particularly threatening until Stijn Schaars smashed his clearance up into the air, rather than up the pitch. Hahn came out of his goal in an attempt to retrieve the ball, but he completely misjudged it and took himself out of the game. As the ball dropped it landed on the head of Matthijs de Ligt and went into the goal via a deflection off Pelle van Amersfoort.
The home side were offered a chance to all-but secure the win in the last moments of the first half. They were awarded a penalty when Lucas Woudenberg was caught holding onto Donny van de Beek’s shirt. Tadic, who’d put in a faultless performance up until this point, stepped up to take the penalty, with a hat trick on offer. He hit the ball towards the centre of the goal, close enough to the goalkeeper for him to claw it away with his feet after diving. The half time whistle followed shortly, with Ajax in the driving seat but disappointed to not have put the game to bed.
That feeling of disappointment turned into worry just six minutes into the second period. Lammers was allowed to run forward with the ball and worked his way to the edge of the box. Once there he let off a strike which made its way into the bottom corner.
The scores were made level five minutes later. Ajax were caught over committing bodies, with both centre backs up the opposite end of the pitch. Heerenveen hit them with a counter attack and Mitchell van Bergen was able isolate Daley Sinkgraven. He twisted and turned away from the makeshift left back before firing home to make it 3-3.
Ajax came close to making a quick reply, with Kasper Dolberg having a header saved well and Ziyech hitting the post with a free kick. Heerenveen were almost given an opportunity of their own as a penalty decision was taken to VAR after Konstantinos Lamprou had collided with Lammers while attempting to punch the ball away, but the penalty wasn’t given.
It was Ajax who scored next, regaining their lead in the 83rd minute. Tadic had the ball on the left hand side and managed to work enough space to get a cross into the box. He hit it towards the back post where Klaas Jan Huntelaar –who’d only been on the pitch for four minutes- pulled away from Kik Pieri. Once the ball reached the substitute he stopped it dead with his first touch before firing it in off the post with his second. As it stood Ajax were 4-3 up and destined for top spot.
It seemed as though that story would remain, though that changed in the first minute of added time. A corner was sent into the box and Pieri made up for letting Huntelaar evade him by losing his man and flicking the ball past the goalkeeper.
Ajax almost got themselves back into the lead in the 94th minute, but luck wasn’t on their side as Schone’s shot bounced off the goalkeeper, onto a defender and back into his arms. As the final whistle blew, setting the 4-4 scoreline in stone, Ajax’s warn out men dropped to the floor in disappointment with the knowledge they’d missed their chance to go top.
They’ll have a chance to get revenge over Heerenveen, as they face them again on Thursday, this time in the KNVB Beker quarter final.