By Mark Bennett at the Jan Breydelstadion
A Bengt Sæternes strike six minutes from time gave Club Brugge KV a 2-1 UEFA Champions League win in Belgium and ended AFC Ajax's European challenge.
The substitute crowned a fine display from Brugge by sliding the ball under Ajax goalkeeper Bogdan Lobont. Yet the win was not enough for Trond Sollied's side as RC Celta de Vigo secured the runners-up position in Group H with a 2-1 victory away at section winners AC Milan. However, the Belgian side do have the consolation of a UEFA Cup place, while Ajax bow out of European competition altogether after finishing bottom of the table.
The game kicked off with the two sides looking to secure second place in the section, and Sollied and his Ajax counterpart, Ronald Koeman, each opted for attacking 4-3-3 formations.
Brugge looked sharper in the opening exchanges and came close to breaking the deadlock after only four minutes. The ball fell for Gaëtan Englebert just outside the penalty area after a throw-in from Peter Van der Heyden, and the midfield player unleashed a shot which deflected just wide off team-mate Sandy Martens.
Ajax continued to look unsettled and Rune Lange should have punished their uncertainty after seven minutes. The Norwegian striker was left completely unmarked as he rose to meet Gert Verheyen's cross, but could only send his header wide. Lobont was then forced into action twice in quick succession, denying long-range efforts from Verheyen first and then Englebert.
Van der Vaart wide
Ajax finally roused themselves and threatened for the first time after 15 minutes. Brugge's Philippe Clement was dispossessed in midfield, leaving Rafael van der Vaart with a shooting chance, but the Dutch international steered his shot wide from outside the area.
Lange on target
That aside, it was near constant pressure from the home side, who duly took the lead after 27 minutes. Oliver De Cock sent a long, searching ball forward, and Lange escaped the attentions of John Heitinga to head beyond Lobont, who had come off his line in the hope of collecting.
Brugge continued to enjoy the better of the play for the remainder of the first half, but instead of increasing their lead they gifted Ajax an equaliser. Van der Heyden needlessly used his hand as he tried to prevent Zlatan Ibrahimovic from reaching a cross, and Belgian striker Wesley Sonck made no mistake from the spot to send the teams in level at the break.
The equaliser meant Ajax regained second place in the section – with the game between Milan and Celta also 1-1 at the halfway stage – and it took Brugge a while to regain their composure once the second half got under way. Within eight minutes, however, Lange found Martens in a promising position inside the penalty area, but this time Lobont was well-placed to save his shot.
Once more, Ajax were largely penned back inside their own half and were restricted to the occasional isolated counterattack, but again Brugge were not able to take their chances. As time went on the hosts became more and more desperate and seemed to be running out of ideas.
Ajax looked more comfortable at the back and increasingly dangerous on the break before news filtered through that Celta had taken the lead in Milan. The Amsterdam side now needed a win, and went close through Ibrahimovic before the late drama ended their challenge.