Ajax didn’t succeed in reaching the Champions League knock-out phase. Despite an early red card for the Italian team, Frank de Boer’s team didn’t manage to get further than a 0-0 tie. And that wasn’t enough to reach second place in pool H.
The assignment was clear: only a win in San Siro would enable Ajax to qualify for the second round of the Champions League. It was an old fashioned do-or-die match for the Amsterdam team, who has been in great form in the past few weeks. It seemed that they were poised to ‘do’ when AC Milan were down to 10 men in the 22nd minute when captain Riccardo Montolivo was sent off the field with a red card due to a foul on Christian Poulsen.
But unfortunately, they didn’t ‘do’. This was, of course, to De Boer’s great disappointment. “If you look at the two matches against Milan, I think we deserved more. Today, anti-football won. It’s incredibly difficult to beat Milan, even when they’re down to ten men. With eleven men they’re willing to play, but not with ten. They did everything to keep it to 0-0. That’s their right, but it’s very frustrating. The referee should have accorded more extra time, because sometimes it took them a full minute to throw the ball in.”
Poulsen was one of the surprises in Frank de Boer’s starting line-up. The coach had been forced to amend the much – praised midfield of Klaassen, Blind, Serero. Due to the lack of a left back, Blind took that position. Poulsen thus received a starting spot at central midfield. Bojan, who has been coming in a substitute and scoring in the past two games, got the nod over Danny Hoesen at the front of the attack.
Milan, with stars such as Mario Balotelli, Kaká and Nigel de Jong, did well in the beginning. In the fifth minute, Poulsen came close to scoring. He sent a header onto the post from a corner kick. Fifteen minutes later, Davy Klaassen seemed ready to score the 0-1 goal; but his flying header didn’t go in. Soon after that, Montolivo got a red card and things seemed to look up for Ajax. Still, the Amsterdam team didn’t know how to capitalize on their one man advantage. They barely created any opportunities before the break.
De Boer left Poulsen in the locker room and brought in Hoesen to gain some power. Things started to go better: Klaassen shot onto keeper Abbiati in the 67th minute, and a bit later, Fischer took a shot that went just wide via an Italian leg. Ajax went for it. Sigthórsson came in for Bojan and, ten minutes before time, Mike van der Hoorn was brought in for Serero. But nothing worked, the ball simply wouldn’t go into the goal, and Milan was a champion in stretching out the time. It seemed to work for an instant. In the final seconds, Klaassen, the man who has been in top shape in recent weeks, sent in an overhead kick. But even then, the ball went wide.
De Boer: “We did everything we could. Even at the end, with Sigthórsson and Van der Hoorn. But the ball simply wouldn’t go in. I don’t know how many passes from the sidelines came, but we just came up short each time. But I’m proud of the team. I think we showed that as Ajax, we don’t need to bow down to anyone. We could just as well have been among the 16 clubs who will play Champions League after the winter break.”
Ajax finished in third place of the pool, behind FC Barcelona and AC Milan, and will continue in the Europa League after the winter break. There is certainly no shame in ending behind these clubs, but the feeling will linger for a while: Ajax came so close.