Dutch disaster puts Manchester City on the brink
Ajax 3 Man City 1
Champions League Group D
Amsterdam is a suitable place for a watery grave and Manchester City's Champions League hopes were all but buried last night. With Borussia Dortmund beating Real Madrid elsewhere in Group D, City are now five points behind the second-placed Germans with three games to go.
Brimming with talented players but still learning the European way, City were given a lesson in the art of possession, defending and finishing by this excellent, young Dutch side. If individual mistakes from the likes of Joleon Lescott scarred the display, throwing away a lead given by Samir Nasri, City were not helped by some of the tactical changes of their manager Roberto Mancini as well as the costly zonal marking.
Mancini kept changing his defence, from a back four to a back three. Gael Clichy played three different positions, left-back, centre-back and right wing-back. By the end, desperately seeking to keep their Champions League dream alive, City were almost 3-3-1-3 with Carlos Tevez behind an attack of Mario Balotelli, Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero. There was no shape, no belief by the end.
By contrast, Ajax were as good as their fans. Siem de Jong and Christian Eriksen were outstanding while full-back Ricardo van Rhijn looks a huge prospect.
Ajax's fans, such a noisy force on a remarkable night, had just been making their point about the moneyed nature of football in the 21st century when Nasri scored. One group held up a banner in a corner of the Amsterdam Arena depicting a sheikh clutching a fistful of dollars.
Another knot of fans waved a banner containing the words 'Against Modern Football', a campaign raising concerns about the sport of Mammon. City fans could have been forgiven for wondering why Ajax then charged them €85 each to gain entry.
Ajax fans have become accustomed to the Premier League plundering talent they have helped nurture. They could have done with centre-halves of the quality of Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen when City finally awoke after 21 minutes, charging forward, seizing the lead against the run of play.
Micah Richards played the catalyst, picking out James Milner, who darted upfield, cutting from right to left. Aguero's run dragged Ajax's defence from its moorings, creating a gap for Nasri to run in to. Milner, shrugging off Niklas Moisander, found the Frenchman, who cut in from the left and curled a right-footed shot unerringly past Ajax's goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer.
The concert amongst the Ajax fans showed no sign of being quietened by the visitors' strike nor the subsequent raid from Richards, who was ushered forward by Dzeko's back-heel, before bringing a low save from Vermeer.
Still the band played on. No wonder. Frank de Boer's team were playing some highly watchable football. Eriksen is a curate's egg of a footballer, a mixture of the sublime and the mundane. He had shone early on, accepting a ball from Lasse Schone, nudging it elegantly away from the wrong-footed Gareth Barry. The space created, Eriksen had Joe Hart scrambling to his left but the Dane's 20-yarder slid wide.
Ajax kept moving positively forward, the strength of their technique paraded in every venture. Ryan Babel guided the ball away from Vincent Kompany before testing Hart. His captain De Jong was also making some deft contributions, steering the ball intelligently around the pitch. With one pass out wide just before the break, De Jong found Ajax's attacking right-back, Van Rhijn. With his second touch, Van Rhijn drilled the ball into the area, slightly behind De Jong, who had continued into the box.
Shifting his weight cleverly, De Jong was able to wrap his foot around the ball in the manner of a Dutch Mark Hughes, sending the ball speeding into the net. It was a terrific goal, as much for the speed of the move's progression as for the expert execution of the finish.
Ajax fans continued with their drums, their songs. They carried on singing through the break, launching into the lustiest rendition of Bob Marley's 'Three Little Birds', so good that the City fans, who have sung it on their travels before, joined in.
There was soon plenty for City's defence to worry about as the second half got under way. Eriksen continued to drift around, looking to prise openings in City's barricades. De Jong was always alert, always alive to the movement of Van Rhijn down the right.
When Ajax then won a corner after 57 minutes, Eriksen swept over a centre that should have been straightforward to deal with. Mancini's zonal-marking system will be debated long and hard after this but City's defenders could still have attacked the ball. Lescott was too sluggish in reacting to the danger, allowing Moisander to head home.
The Ajax drums seemed to beat out a warning to City, pointing out that the Champions League ambition of the English champions was in grave danger.
Mancini, who had been serenaded by City's fans, made his first move, hooking Lescott, the clear inference being that he blamed him for Moisander's goal. Aleksandar Kolarov came on, going to left wing-back with Clichy tucking in as a third centre-half.
Lescott, meanwhile, was walking past Mancini before turning towards the bench and shaking hands with the City subs. Behind him, the Ajax choirs were in exceptional voice, the decibel level rising even higher after 68 minutes. Again City's defence was found wanting. Kompany failed to move out smartly enough to close down Eriksen, although City's midfield hardly covered themselves in glory in allowing the Dane to venture so far. Eriksen unleashed his shot, which Hart probably had covered but the ball clipped Clichy and diverted past Hart.
More chances came and went. Hart denied Babel, and Vermeer prevented Dzeko scoring. Frustration began to seep through City veins.
Like a gambler on a losing streak in Vegas, Mancini played his final strong cards in an attempt to turn the game around. Tevez arrived, then Mario Balotelli. City were now 3-3-1-3. With four minutes remaining, Aguero attempted a rescue mission, turning smartly 20 yards out but firing over.
Still the Dutch drums hammered away. Still they sang. They all but played the 'Last Post' for City's Champions League hopes. (© Daily Telegraph, London)