Milan 0-0 Ajax: Frank de Boer’s side fail to progress beyond ten-man Milan
It was a dismal night in Italy for Frank de Boer’s Ajax as they failed to overcome a valiant Milan to go crashing out of the Champions League having failed to pick up the three points required to progress beyond the group stage.
The 0-0 draw was particularly unpleasant for the Eredivisie side as their opponents played with ten men for 70 minutes after Riccardo Montolivo was dismissed for a challenge on Christian Poulsen. However, Ajax pressed forward and dominated the entire game but, just like in the first meeting with Milan this season, they were not clinical enough and can only blame themselves for falling short at the final hurdle.
Certainly, De Boer can count his decision to bring on defender Mike van der Hoorn for midfielder Thulani Serero in the 80th minute as one of, if not the very, worst of his managerial career to date.
It was the defender whose challenge allowed Balotelli the licence to go down in the box and win the penalty which altogether ensured Milan’s qualification back in Amsterdam on the 1st of October. But when the coach threw him on last night, it defined Ajax’s game plan for the last ten minutes – stick Vander Hoorn up front and lob diagonal balls into the box with a hope of hitting him and seeing it bounce in favour of his team. While it almost worked – such a ball saw a Klaassen overhead kick go just wide in the dying seconds of the game – it was stupid to rest so much on a wasted tactic. Such diagonal crosses will very rarely lead to anything good as the defenders can read the pass from the moment the ball leaves the foot of the winger, while the striker must be able to adjust his position, read it, challenge for it and either look for someone to play it to or try and direct it towards goal.
Thus, following the late inclusion of the defender ensued ten minutes of wasted Ajax attacks, interspersed only by the playacting of Mario Balotelli, which referee Howard Webb did absolutely nothing to stamp out. But that ten minute period was perhaps a fitting way to end Ajax’s Champions League campaign. Filled with the promise and belief that something special could be achieved, they ultimately fell short when it came to the decisive period.
While the two meetings with Celtic suggested there was little between the champions of Scotland and the champions of the Netherlands, the two clashes with Milan showed there was even less between De Boer’s men and those of Allegri.
While Ajax fans will insist the question of who was to proceed in this group fell to one official back in the 92nd minute of the meeting between these two teams in Amsterdam, it all boiled down to much more than that.
For one, in both meetings with Milan Ajax had enough of the ball to compensate for the perceived inadequacy of the officials. In Amsterdam, they had 70% of possession at half-time and didn’t open the scoring until the 90th minute, by which time they should have been at least two goals ahead. The referee being sold by the fall of Balotelli may have been a crushing blow, but it should have been an altogether insignificant fault of the official over the 90 minutes.
Last night, there were several factors at play. De Boer severely restricted the width of the team in the second half. The introduction of striker Danny Hoesen for Christian Poulsen at half-time resulted in Lasse Schone being brought in from the wing to the middle of the park, meaning Davy Klaassen was generally stuck out on the right flank. The problem with this was that, while it deprived the team of any real width as the 20-year-old kept cutting inside or going backwards whenever he had the ball, it also made the energetic, technical and all-round fabulous midfielder ineffectual, keeping him out of the position from which he can influence the game.
What made that worse was that this was a game in which Ajax desperately needed width. With Hoesen on and Sigthorsson coming on for the ineffectual Bojan, De Boer could have introduced Lesley de Sa or Lucas Andersen to the affair in order to add some pace and width to the team, instead he waited and then threw Van der Hoorn on. They had to stretch the Milan defence in order to create the space required in and around the box in order to capitalise on the numerical advantage, but it was incredibly difficult to do so with such a rushed and narrow mentality. Even less likely when trying to hit a targetman in the shape of Van der Hoorn.In a sense, Ajax were unlucky. They pressed forward throughout the game and created chances, the clearest of which, Poulsen’s first half header, was kept out only by the post. The red card of Riccardo Montolivo for a foul on Poulsen made it easy for Milan to defend for the remaining 70 minutes, which they did very well as a unit. It was form then on that Balotelli set out to win a foul every time the ball came near him, while Kaka’s workrate increased immensely and Nigel de Jong and Sulley Muntari defended earnestly. Arguably, Ajax would have had a better chance of finding the net had Montolivo not been sent off as Milan’s pressing was excellent, but they didn’t do it well enough as a team and the Amsterdam side were able to find space between the players. As Ajax dominated possession and moved the ball around, the late stages of the second half were the period in which Milan should have started to tire out and De Boer’s men could take advantage, but the Italian side were too smart to fall for it and were able to restrict them for the entire game.
De Boer and his charges have a right to grudge the decisions of officials in both matches against Milan, moan about a lack of luck and feel hard done by as they drop down to the Europa League while the Rossoneri progress in the Champions League. But they were in control of the situation and they fell short of achieving the one thing they set out to do this season – remain in Europe’s most prestigious football competition beyond the winter break.
However, there is one positive Ajax can take from the result. There clearly isn’t much between them and those capable of progressing in Europe. They are getting closer and progressing all the time. This is yet another young group of players sporting the iconic red and white jerseys, but they will develop over the remainder of the season.
Ajax will look to challenge for the secondary competition from here on in, but they are aiming for their fourth consecutive league title and are in a great position to do so.
As they move forward over the remainder of the season they will improve as a team and as individuals, returning to the competition next year in a stronger position to remain in the Champions League beyond the group stage.