For the neutral, there could be no victor in Wednesday’s win or go home meeting between Ajax and Atalanta at Johan Cruijff ArenA (although a draw would suffice for the Italian side).
Ajax’s run to the semifinals of the 2018-19 tournament is already the stuff of legend, while Atalanta’s own trip to the quarters last season was just as improbable, and likewise ended in heartbreaking added-time defeat.
Much has changed for the two sides since those heady days. Ajax lost the immense talents of Hakim Ziyech, Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt and Donny van de Beek, amongst others, to the transfer market. Atalanta’s only big loss this fall was Timothy Castagne to Leicester City, but the club has fallen to ninth in Serie A and manager Gian Piero Gasperini and star forward Alejandro “Papu” Gómez have had a very public falling-out in recent weeks.
Still, the 2-2 draw back on Oct. 27 at Gewiss Stadium in their first group encounter — with Atalanta coming from two goals down in the second half — highlighted the absorbing styles of these two great entertainers.
Despite the off-field drama, Papu took his place in the front two alongside Duván Zapata, whereas Ajax looked to veteran Dušan Tadić and the young trio of Brian Brobbey (18), Antony (20) and Ryan Gravenberch (18).
It was Atalanta that came closest to opening the scoring in the 19th minute after Zapata presented Marten de Roon with a glorious opportunity in the area, but the Dutch midfielder got his effort all wrong and we finished scoreless at the break.
Ajax had 45 minutes to avoid another cruel drop to the Europa League, but this transitional side just isn’t able to put opponent’s under sustained periods of pressure’s like it used to. But you can’t repress “the Ajax way” forever, and a beautiful move that ended with Davy Klaassen through on goal in the 74th-minute looked like a certain goal.
The Everton flop fired straight at Pierluigi Gollini.
Minutes later, Gravenberch — already on a booking for a tactical foul in the first half — was harshly handed a second yellow after the 6-3 midfielder’s arm caught the face of the 5-5 Papu.
It became mission impossible for Ajax in the 85th-minute after Remo Freuler found Luis Muriel on the counter.
¡Goooooool del Atalanta!Luis Muriel abre el marcador y le daría la clasificación al cuadro italiano @AFCAjax 0-1 @Atalanta_BC
— TUDN USA (@TUDNUSA) December 9, 2020
Atalanta’s second Champions League voyage leads to a second trip to the knockout rounds. Ajax, meanwhile, joins Manchester United in parachuting down to the Europa League.