Ajax Crashes Out Of Champions League After Heartbreaking Loss To Valencia

Ajax, semifinalist last time around, has been eliminated from the UEFA Champions League at the group stage following a heartbreaking 1-0 defeat to Valencia in Amsterdam. 

Heading into the day as Group H leaders, Johan Cruijff ArenA fully expected a celebratory affair given the fact that Ajax had previously crushed Valencia 3-0 at the Mestalla back on Oct. 2, but Rodrigo’s goal in the 24th minute — coupled with Chelsea’s 2-1 victory over Lille — sent Ajax crashing down to third and into the Europa League.

To expect a repeat of last season’s heroics was always unrealistic given the fact that Ajax sold Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong, Kasper Dolberg and Lasse Schöne over the summer, but the side still retained eight starters Tuesday that appeared in that semifinal defeat to Tottenham last season. Ajax doesn’t rebuild so much as reload, and one exciting crop of fearless youngsters has been replaced by another, highlighted by Edson Álvarez, Lisandro Martínez, Sergiño Dest and Noa Lang. 

But the warning signs were there for Erik ten Hag and company: Although Ajax has only lost one match in the Eredivisie, that happened last Friday against Willem II. What’s more, leading scorer Quincy Promes was ruled out Tuesday with a calf injury.

And the offseason’s transfers came to the fore in the first half. The Valencia opener was constructed by 19-year-old Spanish phenom Ferran Torres, but it was Joël Veltman — De Ligt’s replacement in the heart of defense — who played Rodrigo onside for the close range finish.

Ajax struggled heavily for its usual fluidity following the opener. Last year, it was De Jong and Schöne who occupied the holding roles with an exceptional blend of grace and graft. Álvarez and Martínez fell well short of their standards, and the 22-year-old Mexican was hooked at halftime in favor of Dest after receiving a booking in the 10th minute.

The celebrated attacking trifecta of Hakim Ziyech, Dušan Tadić and Donny van de Beek couldn’t find the magic that defined last season’s run either. Van de Beek had an effort cleared off the line by José Gayà, and then the 22-year-old Dutchman looked certain to have set up Ziyech for the all-important equalizer in the 68th minute, but Ziyech’s attempted finish was godawful.

With time running out on Ajax, Valencia’s use of the dark arts enraged the home side. Ajax lost the plot a little as both Van de Beek and Nicolás Tagliafico were booked for scything down players, a tactic which allowed Valencia to waste a little more time.

The final minutes were as tense as they come as Valencia keeper Jaume Doménech pulled off two fine saves to deny Ajax’s deliverance, and Valencia pulled through despite a straight red card to Gabriel Paulista in the 93rd minute for nuzzling with Tadić.

Valencia finished as Group H winners while Chelsea took the runners-up spot. 

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