It is fair to say that the writing was on the wall when Ajax midfielder Ryan Gravenberch was sent off (he walked for his second yellow card after a foul on Alejandro Gomez) as his team-mates battled to try to qualify to the knockout stages of the Champions League in their home game against the Italians of Atalanta.
He had been dismissed on or around the 80th minute and, for obvious reasons, it weakened the home side’s resolve. So much so, in fact, that just five minutes after the hosts were reduced to ten men, Atalanta nabbed the vital goal. Substitute Luis Muriel grabbed the decisive strike for the visitors on the 85th minute when he cleverly rounded goalkeeper Andre Onana to slot home.
Now it is they who go through as Group D runners-up behind Liverpool. Ajax must lick their wounds and prepare for a campaign in Europe’s lesser tournament as they automatically drop into the Europa League.
It is a bitter pill to swallow for the Dutch giants, who have lit up the competition in recent years. They were not without merit in the encounter. But they had key players missing. Indeed, it was an injury-hit Ajax, missing Daley Blind, David Neres and Lassina Traore, who had the best of the possession for most of the game but were missing attacking guile and could not break down the resolute Atalanta rear-guard.
Ajax coach Erik ten Hag gave 18-year-old Brian Brobbey a chance up front due to the absence of the injured stars — but alas, it didn’t pay off. The coach was in dejected mood after the defeat and pointed the finger of blame and the lack of connectivity in his team. He said:
“There just wasn’t enough connection going on in the first half, especially with Brian Brobbey. Brian made himself very available a number of times throughout the game. But as I’ve already said, we needed more guys like that. That would have also given us more power upfront.”
Now the coach says his aces will have to redouble their efforts and focus on their league campaign, then prepare for life in the Europa League.
“In the spring we’ll go further in the Europa League. After reaching the final a few years ago, we know very well where that can lead, but we also know the story of what happened with Getafe last season. You just have to get to the next round first.
“You can’t wallow in disappointment for too long. This leads to negativity, to injuries and to low levels of energy. We have to get that positive vibe back. We’ve been having a great season so far and we’ll continue that against Zwolle on Saturday.”