For two players, FC Utrecht-Ajax must be an extra beautiful match. One because he’s making his comeback at his old club. The other because of his debut. Both are attackers and both are eager to live up to the high expectations.
That’s how it goes with transfers in the winter: they are the trump cards for the second half of the season.
At Ajax that is Brian Brobbey. He’s been back. Contrary to what he and his management had hoped, his adventure at RB Leipzig proved unsuccessful. He scored zero goals in nine Bundesliga matches and proved susceptible to the lure of his old trainer Erik ten Hag. “I need you,” he had texted.
“As a young boy you naturally make choices,” Brobbey will say later in the afternoon. Perhaps he should not have moved to Germany at the age of nineteen, while he had not yet been a full season base player in Amsterdam. But that’s hindsight.
The new face of FC Utrecht is eight years older, but much more unknown. At least, by Dutch standards. Enter his name on YouTube and the compilations of goals will appear. Yet Naoki Maeda’s fame was limited to his native country: Japan. There he played successively for Tokyo Verdy, Matsumoto Yamaga, Yokohama F-Marinos and Nagoya Grampus before making his debut in the Eredivisie on Sunday.
Jordy Zuidam, technical director of FC Utrecht, already had Maeda in mind last season, but then it did not come to a deal. So this winter. In a press release, Zuidam spoke of “a creative player who can pass a man”, with “overview and a good shot”. Maeda was “an immediate reinforcement” for the club.
While Utrecht supporters had to rely on those words, those of Ajax knew what to expect from their new asset. Goals. Brobbey has a nose for it. Not in the Bundesliga, of course, but rather at Ajax. In addition, he had become wiser, he said in an interview with the NOS on Friday.
Tough period in Leipzig
Brobbey doesn’t like to give interviews, but reporter Joep Schreuder managed to trigger him – as if the sun was shining in his face. It had been hard in Leipzig, he admitted. The lack of friends and family, few playing minutes, the change in the 43rd minute at Bayer Leverkusen. But that made him stronger. “Hopefully when I play, I will immediately do my thing,” said Brobbey in the run-up to the duel with FC Utrecht. “I am ready.”
Utrecht acquisition Maeda is naturally easy to talk to. “When I told my wife about FC Utrecht’s interest, she immediately responded enthusiastically,” he said during the introductory interview on the club channel. The interviewer: “Which match are you most looking forward to?” Maeda: „The one against Ajax. And I promise you we’re going to win it.” Maeda also said: “I feel great expectations within the club and I definitely want to live up to it here.”
Whether that will work remains to be seen. The big game that Maeda has been looking forward to so much takes a dramatic turn for the Japanese. Within ten minutes he ends up moaning on the ground after a tackle from Argentinian Lisandro Martinez. “Stand up dude”, it sounds from the defense of Ajax, which can be heard clearly due to the absence of the audience. Maeda tries to stand, but his foot is too battered. Tears well up in his eyes as he is carried to the catacombs by two medics.
While the Japanese inside is examined, it’s the other newcomer who will steal the show. After Antony’s opening goal, Brobbey scores twice and helps Ajax to a 3-0 victory. The first with the head, the second with the foot. His fellow players happily fly around his neck.
When asked whether he had felt pressured before the game, the striker replies succinctly afterwards: “No.” Does he ever feel pressure at all, a reporter wanted to know. “Only against Atalanta.” That was the group match in the Champions League that Ajax had to win at the end of 2020 to continue. And lost.
Stoic – or is it shyness? – Brobbey talks about his return afterwards. “I knew the trainer needed me,” he says, referring to striker Sébastien Haller’s participation in the Africa Cup. Ten Hag: “Brobey did exactly what we asked of him today.” The trainer thinks that the striker is stronger than in his first period at Ajax. “He has made strides in Germany.”
When Brobbey calmly walks to the waiting team bus, Naoki Maeda has long since left the Galgenwaard. For him, the day he had been looking forward to in the hospital ends. It is not yet known on Sunday evening what is wrong with him.
FC Utrecht had stipulated an option to buy in its rental contract, in case the attacker actually turned out to be a reinforcement. But given the suspected seriousness of his injury, it is uncertain whether Maeda will have an opportunity to prove that, like Brobbey, he is an asset to his new club.