After going nine games without a win, Ajax have now won two-on-the-trot, and things are looking up under new coach Stanley Menzo. The game plan was certainly spot on Wednesday night. The strategy was clearly to play off the mistakes of the opposition – and Ajax did so quite effectively.
For Sundowns, it’s not the ideal result or performance as they prepare for next week’s Fifa Club World Cup. The African champions are scheduled to jet off to Japan for the prestigious Fifa event – scheduled for December 8-18 – and they are determined to make an impact. In essence, it’s an opportunity to put not just the Pretoria club, but South African football as whole, on the world football stage. Clubs involved include Spanish giants Real Madrid, Mexico’s Club America, Colombia’s Atletico Nacional and Auckland City of New Zealand.
Wednesday night, both Ajax and Sundowns welcomed key players back from injury. For the Cape club, Rivaldo Coetzee and Mosa Lebusa strengthened the side’s defence, while the Pretoria club could finally call on Khama Billiat and Keagan Dolly, the two attackers who have played such a prominent role in their recent success. But, such is the depth and quality of the Sundowns squad that their coach, Pitso Mosimane, was afforded the luxury of placing stars like Billiat and Dolly on the bench.
New Ajax coach Menzo, since assuming control, has been vocal about improving the team’s defensive shape and structure. In preparing for the game against Sundowns, he was frank in his assessment that Ajax would probably not have the lion’s share of possession. And, as such, he was adamant that his players stay in the game for as long as possible, that they stay tight and compact and try to not concede. Menzo, the former Ajax Amsterdam and Netherlands goalkeeper, got his prediction was on the mark as Sundowns hogged the ball, looking to penetrate the Capetonians with slick passing moves.
But, with Ajax showing superb discipline in defence, and patience in their press and shape, Sundowns battled to break them down. And, in doing so, Ajax were able to fashion a few opportunities on the counter, with experienced trickster Mark Mayambela and speedy Thabo Mosadi at the heart of everything. The best opportunities of the opening 45 minutes fell to Mayambela, the nifty midfielder from Khayelitsha, but the first effort was stopped by Sundowns goalkeeper Denis Onyango, and the second, a really inviting one, he stabbed over the bar.
Sundowns, in their struggle to find a way beyond the organised Ajax defensive line, were forced into long range attempts – and who better than Hlompho Kekana to do so. The Pretoria club’s captain, who is nominated for the Fifa Puskás Award for Goal of the Year, hammered in a magnificent shot, but it thundered against the cross bar.
Dolly was introduced at the start of the second half, with Sundowns hoping his creative instinct would be able to prise Ajax open. Generally, though, there was no change to the feel and flow of the action. The Pretoria side had the possession, while the resolute and disciplined Capetonians feasted off the champion club's errors, always looking to catch them with swift counter-attacks.
Bantu Mzwakali had an opportunity for Ajax, but drilled his shot wide. At the other end, the in-form Percy Tau managed to weave his way through on goal, but was foiled by a wonderful tackle from the brilliant Coetzee.
Sundowns brought on Billiat, the reigning PSL Player of the Year, for the final 30 minutes – but not even his considerable presence could derail Ajax from their structured, blinkered approach.
And then, as this game of football so often does, it rewards industry and resilience, and those who are prepared to dig deep and put in the hard yards. In the 70th minute, Mzwakali’s cross was turned in by Mosadi to give the Cape side the lead. Two minutes later, it was 2-0, this time Mayambela was the provider, with midfielder Ndiviwe Mdabuka left with a simple tap-in to ensure the victory for Ajax. Based on the unity and perseverance in performance, the meticulous planning, the diligence and discipline displayed, it was no less than the Capetonians deserved.
Original source: Ajax stun Sundowns