Ajax squandered a two-goal cushion in their first game of the 2010/11 league season, inexcusably dropping two points. The Amsterdammers can’t even cite the absence of a suspended Luis Suárez as a defining factor – if anyone, it was Jan Vertonghen whom they missed most.
A point apiece was by no means an inaccurate reflection of what was an enjoyable contest for the neutral spectator, one that pitted débutante coach Pieter Huistra against the club whose backroom he departed to join Groningen.
Huistra wasn’t alone in taking a welcoming bow at the Euroborg; Maikel Kieftenbeld, Jonas Ivens and Dušan Tadić shared their manager’s first-game nerves, while Mounir El Hamdaoui made his debut for the visitors.
The Moroccan led the Ajax line well, justifying his selection by burying two awkward-looking right-foot pokes that gave his new employers a 2-0 cushion.
Given the amount of play Vurnon Anita and Urby Emanuelson saw down the left-flank, it increasingly become inevitable at 0-0 that all El Hamdaoui had to do to open his account was time a slide into the six-yard-box.
Yet, frustrated by his lack of frequent involvement, the new signing from AZ Alkmaar lurked and linked nearer to halfway. Unsurprisingly, both of the attacker’s goals came when he reverted back to last-shoulder hanging.
While his first-time flick-ons and lay-offs in the midfield were neat, Ajax – who overcame PAOK in a midweek Champions League qualifier – already had two players looking to work that zone in Christian Eriksen and Siem De Jong.
But the young Dane disappointed by and large, save for flashes of his 18-year-old brilliance occasionally penetrating the anonymity. For example, his right-footed corner-kicks always beat the first-man, hanging tantalisingly for a colleague to attack, and inducing panic amongst Luciano and his net-protecting colleagues.
However, that right-foot was overused by the boy born on Valentine’s Day. This limited his passing range, or the angles he has to work with when dwarfed by bloodthirsty shutters.
The Frank Lampard-esque de Jong also only sparkled in spells. Like Eriksen, De Jong expended great energy in offering the screening Demy De Zeeuw or ball-bringing Oleguer an option.
Alas, de Jong is also too reliant on his right foot, but unlike the playmaking Eriksen, de Jong’s various attributes rendered him more potent here. Nevertheless, locking on to the same wavelength as El Hamdaoui more often will take time, but promises to be exciting when it happens.
Negating the central area’s traffic and taking advantage of Kieftenbeld’s tendency to linger upfield, byline-bound balls for Emanuelson or Anita to chase constituted the bulk of Ajax’s offensive play.
Unfortunately, the end-product was rarely steered goalwards. Still, Emanuelson’s last-shoulder darts did provide one of the game’s more intriguing duels, Groningen ‘keeper Luciano often departing his line to clatter both man and ball.
Judging from what went on in this game, no one sat by Ismaïl Aissati on the bus home. Always available on the chalk, and positioned in an area of the pitch Stenman had often abandoned, the mini-midfielder was so often ignored.
That side wasn’t a graveyard, however, as it was where the hosts launched the bulk of their attacks – Stenman and Tadić complementing one another despite never having played together.
Keeping Gregory van der Wiel lethargic, clumsy and corked, Groningen should have taken one of the many first half chances that they produced down that channel.
But like Ajax, they also found it difficult to construct anything in the middle. Femi was there to break opposition attacks, while Tim Sparv was neither clever enough to collect in punishing pockets, nor use the ball when he did.
Leandro Bacuna, meanwhile, had two primary tasks.
Number one saw him counter-attack poised whenever Groningen were penned in their own-box, seeking possession to hit a scoop over to Nicklas Pedersen long, high and early.
For primary task number two, Bacuna was tasked with hurrying the decisions and distributions of Ajax’s back-five. Such application aided Andreas Granqvist, the Groningen centre-back responding to and reading each aimless Ajax hoof.
Alas, the Swede and his central colleague Jonas Ivens were at fault for Ajax’s second goal. Admittedly, De Zeeuw located El Hamdaoui on the floor with ease, but why wasn’t the Moroccan’s subsequent touch, turn, and toepoke from within the D stopped?
Granqvist also blotted his copybook during Ajax’s opener. Lured onto a flat scoop that hung just beyond the centre-circle, the minuscule Eriksen’s well-timed leap and scalp-flick set El Hamdoui clean through on goal.
2-0 down, Huistra’s now Tim Matavž-boosted men rallied against an opponent too eager to relax. The Slovenian’s height, hunger and presence troubled Ajax, for whom van der Wiel struggled to contain Tadić.
The impressive Serb’s threat was consistent with Groningen on top. Whereas Koen van de Laak did a captain’s job on the right (tucking, mucking, heading, hounding), the former Vojvodina player put in a direct head-down winger performance.
The 21-year-old looked incisive when cutting inside too, staying on that cherished left foot, attempting through-balls or give-and-go moves. Unfortunately, most of these were too hasty, or misread by line-leader Pedersen.
Thankfully, the pair combined for Groningen’s leveller. Tadić’s set-pieces improved as the final-whistle neared, and from one, Stenman flicked on, Stekelenburg’s parry was superhuman, but Pedersen athletically buried.
Tadić was similarly instrumental for the first goal. A visionary pullback was met by Matavž’s diagonal-shimmy, the Slovenian finishing instantly with his equally lethal left peg.
For all of Groningen’s toil to pull level, Ajax’s incapability of leaving the box as soon as the first delivery got cleared proved costly.
Oddly, they were disciplined in setting up to defend corners, but when the home side monopolised clearances, Ajax were caught in two minds as to whether they should abandon Stekelenburg and push out. They paid the price, so hopefully it’s a lesson learned for Martin Jol’s young title challengers.