By Marcus Christenson at the Amsterdam ArenA
AC Milan again proved too strong for AFC Ajax to move into the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League with a narrow 1-0 away win.
Milan eliminated the Dutch side in the quarter-finals of last season's competition and also defeated Ajax by a single goal in the opening game of Group H. Andriy Shevchenko's strike earned the win on this occasion. The Amsterdam club remain second despite the loss, but must win at Club Brugge KV on Matchday 6 to be sure of progressing.
Ronald Koeman's Ajax squad was down to the bare bones with defensive pair Hatem Trabelsi and John O'Brien, South African midfield player Steven Pienaar and prolific Belgian striker Wesley Sonck all absent through injury, while captain Rafael van der Vaart and Zdenek Grygera missed out through suspension. However, Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Maxwell both overcame minor knocks to take their places in the starting lineup.
Milan, meanwhile, were without the suspended central defender Alessandro Nesta after his sending off against Brugge, so Martin Laursen came in alongside Paolo Maldini, who returned to the side after missing Sunday's 2-0 win against AC Chievo Verona.
Both teams started in lively fashion and Filippo Inzaghi could have given the away side the lead after five minutes, but his powerful effort from the edge of the penalty area flew high over the crossbar. At the other end, Nigel De Jong came close with a looping header.
The game then settled into a midfield struggle, with both teams full of endeavour but producing little in the way of goalmouth action. Young Romanian striker Nicolae Mitea threatened briefly in the 29th minute, but Ajax's attacking options, already severely limited, were then reduced further as Ibrahimovic was forced to go off having previously gone down clutching his right ankle. Finnish playmaker Jari Litmanen took his place.
Kaka crowded out
Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti, meanwhile, had opted to play the diamond formation in midfield with Andrea Pirlo in the holding role and Kaka, who scored the only goal against Brugge on Matchday 4, in a more advanced position. However, the young Brazilian found it difficult to create any chances as Abubakari Yakubu, Anthony Obodai and Thomáš Galásek took turns at marking him, and the match remained goalless at the interval.
As the second half kicked off, Milan immediately seized the initiative and took the lead within seven minutes. Inzaghi won possession near the halfway line and found Cafu on the right. The pacy Brazilian defender sped past his marker and supplied a pinpoint cross which evaded Yakubu and fell to Shevchenko, who chested the ball down and shot past Bogdan Lobont with his left foot.
Moments later Cafu threatened again, powering past his compatriot Maxwell and into the penalty area. He looked certain to score but was eventually thwarted by Obodai's flying challenge. Unfortunately, the Ghanaian midfield player injured himself in the process and was forced to leave the field on a stretcher, with Wamberto taking his place.
Milan continued to dominate and former Ajax midfield player Clarence Seedorf, booed throughout, nearly doubled the lead four minutes after Shevchenko's goal but was unable to direct his header on target from the Ukrainian's cross. The home side tried their best to respond, with Maxwell striking a fierce long-range shot, but the distance was too great to seriously trouble Dida in the Milan goal. Ajax pushed valiantly but the Italian side's greater experience told and they defended expertly to preserve their lead and ensure their progress.