It didn’t take Ajax too much effort to beat Vitesse in their own home on Wednesday night as they reached the semifinals of the KNVB Cup for the second year in a row. After opening the score in the first half, Ajax secured a reasonable simple victory with two goals in the second act. The well-filled away section celebrated three goals and two substitutions as Daley Blind and Hakim Ziyech returned from their injuries. Vitesse 0 – 3 Ajax.
Blind and Ziyech were badly missed over the last few weeks. The loss of the two best passers in the selection was yet another hit for Erik ten Hag to take as his squad is riddled with injuries. Even though Ajax had a weekend off due to extreme weather conditions, Perr Schuurs was deemed unfit to play on Wednesday. Edson Álvarez replaced him in central defense. Ryan Babel was able to start, however, having shaken off the minor injury he picked up in the match against PSV. Traoré took Quincy Promes’ shift in the point of the front line.
Though the match was at times plenty entertaining, it never really felt like an intense high-profile cup match. The most exciting part of the evening was arguably the start. It didn’t take Ajax a minute to test the Vitesse goalkeeper for the first time. Vitesse responded with an equally dangerous attempt on goal directly afterwards, as the play waved up and down the field of the Gelredome. Both sides created chances on multiple occasions, but neither scored. Ajax soon got a firmer grip on the ball and took control of the match.
Ajax scored the first goal of the match in very atypical fashion: from a counter-attack. In the 32nd minute, Vitesse had, on a rare occasion, put pressure on Ajax with all eleven players on the offensive end of the pitch. The trap closed on Vitesse when they botched a throw-in and handed the ball to Ajax. A few fast runs and inch-perfect passes by Donny van de Beek and Lassina Traoré enabled Ryan Babel to fire the ball into the roof of the goal. It was his first goal for Ajax since his second return to Amsterdam.
The pace of the game nearly slowed to a total halt and half-time was reached with just one goal on the scoreboard. Ajax was not putting on a fantastic show of football, but that was neither necessary nor possible against this passive yet solid opponent. The start of the second half wasn’t any more thrilling than the end of the first. Ajax lacked the inspiration or finesse to break through the lines, but Vitesse tended to give away possession within a matter of seconds. Despite the lack of threat from the current number six of the Eredivisie, the second goal for Ajax was a relief.
Ryan Gravenberch doubled the lead with an incredibly powerful shot to the far corner. Nicolás Tagliafico and Ryan Babel created the first really well-executed attack of the second half, and Gravenberch had a free chance to shoot when Donny van de Beek cleverly stepped over the ball. For Gravenberch it was immediately the end of the day. He was replaced by the now fully-recovered and fan-favorite vice-captain Daley Blind. He reclaimed his spot in the center of defense as Lisandro Martínez moved up to the midfield. Hakim Ziyech came on not much later, replacing Ryan Babel. Both players will be building up their fitness and rhythm over the next few weeks, and they both had a solid performance on Wednesday.
Hakim Ziyech, who is reportedly close to finalizing a summer transfer to Chelsea, immediately showed off his passing skills when he put Huntelaar one-on-one with the goalkeeper. He struck the post, sadly. Ajax still managed to score one more time just before the final whistle, with a little help from the VAR. The footage convinced the referee of a handball and a penalty, which captain Tadić dutifully converted.
Ajax now advances to the semifinal of the KNVB Cup and is still fighting for three trophies this season. Earlier on the Wednesday, we saw this season’s main competitor getting knocked out of the cup when NAC Breda defeated AZ. Whoever comes out on top of Thursday’s match between Go Ahead Eagles and FC Utrecht will be Ajax’ next hurdle on the road to title prolongation.