It was all or nothing for Ajax in the Champions League on Wednesday. After the 0-0 draw in Amsterdam, the return match against AC Milan had to provide a winner. Ajax had it all twice, but ended up with nothing. Ajax erased a deficit two times, but there was not enough time for a third. AC Milan ended Ajax's impressive run in Europe this season in added time: 3-2. Ajax played better than the home side, but according to coach Koeman this match was an example of how unfair sports can be sometimes.
Prior to the match, the availability of Rafael van der Vaart was the hot topic. The midfielder, who suffered a concussion on Saturday, said he wanted to play. Ronald Koeman had his prodigy's health in mind however, and Van der Vaart was not in the squad for the crucial match. His health had top priority. Maxwell and Galásek could not play either and accompanied Van der Vaart in the stands.
Koeman had indicated he would choose between Van der Vaart and Jari Litmanen. With that he had put up a smoke screen, as the Finnish midfielder started on the bench. Sneijder and Van Damme were in the line up.
In the first fifteen minutes it was anybody's match. Both teams looked for an opening, but could not find one. Ajax were slightly better, but Milan were trying to create from a quick transition to offence. It led to the first real chance in the match, halfway through the first half. from a scrimmage before Lobont's goal the ball ended up with Brocchia who fired from the edge of the box. Pasanen altered the direction of his effort and the ball went towards the right upper corner. With an almost impossible reflex Lobont managed to push it out. San Siro stadium howled for a goal but referee Mejuto Gonzalez did not award one. Minutes later AC Milan scored anyway. Shevchenko crossed from the left. Van Damme grazed the ball, and it went to an unmarked Inzaghi who had no problems heading it in: 1-0.
At halftime, Koeman replaced Jelle van Damme with Jari Litmanen, who brought more creativity behind striker Ibrahimovic and thus had to force an opening in AC Milan's defence. After a little more than an hour Ajax got what they deserved. Andy van der Meyde received the ball on the left, went by Simic and crossed. Litmanen was left wide open and he made it 1-1 from up close. A fair score, because Ajax had been better, just as in the home match. With this result, Ajax were through.
The vistors were not allowed to enjoy their goal for long. Two minutes after the equaliser Ajax were not alert and Shevchenko put the ball behind Lobont. Again, an Ajax leg deflected the ball and the Ukranian striker was exactly in the right spot to finish the wide-open opportunity: 2-1.
Ajax were down for a second time but still not out. The side from Amsterdam had proven to be able to score away from home. And if they could do it once, they could do it twice. They did, and in strange fashion.
Again, it all started with Van der Meyde. His cross went by Ibrahimovic but came right to Steven Pienaar, who was positioned between Nesta and Maldini. All three went to the deck. The Italians seemed to be waiting for a whistle, but none came. Pienaar was the first to get to his feet and he made it 2-2.
The Ajax fans went crazy and the other 75,000 went quiet. This time, Ajax stayed alert after their goal. Big gaps opened in midfield, and Jari Litmanen took full advantage. Although Milan recovered, the match seemed to end in a draw. It would mean that Ajax would have the final four of Europe in their sights for the second time that night.
Koeman brought on De Jong and Bergdolmo for Pienaar and Van der Meyde to strengthen the defence and to make sure Ajax would not give away their lead on aggregate. But it happened anyway. Thomasson finished Ajax's Cinderella story in the final minute when he pushed Inzaghi's effort over the goal line.
Ronald Koeman was heavily disappointed when he faced the press afterwards. ,,It is unbelievably disappointing to lose when you're so close. Over the entire match we were better. The disappointment is so great because the result is not fair. That hurts the team. Despite the loss, the coach praised his team. ,,They fought hard and refused to give up. Especially if you consider how young this team is. A place in the semi-finals could have provided a nice lift for the young guys who are still developing. That's why this is so painful.
,,It often happens that a match is decided in extra time. That's how football is. Milan were the luckier of the two teams today. The ball was deflected with the first two goals. And with the third, Chivu slipped, causing Inzaghi to be completely open. That has nothing to do with being able to defend. It's pure luck'', Koeman shrugged.
,,Now everybody is disappointed. As a coach, I can be proud of this team tomorrow. We amazed everyone. But that does not help me now. In the end, we're happy that we have come this far in the tournament despite the fact that the teams we played were much more experienced than we are.
Undoubtedly, everybody agrees with Koeman, but the many Ajax supporters were heavily disappointed. Quietly they went back to the bus or car. Not a word was spoken. Back home. Sunday, AZ awaits for the league. That's football.