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By Ivan Carvalho at the Stadio Delle Alpi
A solitary goal from Marcelo Zalayeta ensured Group C winners Juventus FC registered their fifth consecutive 1-0 win of the group stage against AFC Ajax, which eliminated the Dutch side from the competition.
Three points adrift of second-placed FC Bayern München before kick-off and having to contend with a Juve defence that had yet to concede a goal, Ronald Koeman's men were always aware their chances of progression were slim at best. Juventus, meanwhile, had the luxury of resting regulars Alessandro Del Piero and Fabio Cannavaro as the Turin side had already ensured themselves a first-place finish thanks to those four previous victories.
Veteran Uruguay defender Paolo Montero took Cannavaro's spot in central defence while compatriot Zalayeta lined up in attack with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who had left Ajax for Juventus at the start of the season. Ajax, meanwhile, had a new look strikeforce with the 17-year-old Ryan Babel drafted in for his first European appearance of the season alongside the inexperienced Argentinian Mauro Rosales.
It was Swedish international Ibrahimovic who set up the first chance in the sixth minute. He supplied a neat pass to Alessio Tacchinardi, but the midfield player ballooned his shot over. However, Juve were not as wasteful in the 15th minute when alert play from Mauro Camoranesi saw him rob Maxwell on the right before racing forward and delivering a fine square pass for Zalayeta to slot the ball beyond visiting goalkeeper Hans Vonk.
Ajax tried to quickly regain their composure and nearly had an equaliser when Rafael van der Vaart, who had recovered from a hamstring injury to play, lined up a 25-metre free-kick just before the half-hour mark. However, Gianluigi Buffon leapt to his left to make a superb save from the Dutch international's blistering strike.
Koeman's side continued to probe for weaknesses in the home side's rearguard but Juventus were in cruise control. They nearly caught Ajax on the counterattack three minutes before half-time following another Van der Vaart free-kick. Pavel Nedved raced forward, eluded a Hatem Trabelsi challenge, and fed Zalayeta. He in turn found Ibrahimovic but the resultant shot was too high. Nedved then spurned an opportunity himself from close range as Juve finished the half in commanding fashion.
After the break, it was the home side that continued to find the open spaces, with Ibrahimovic and Nedved still making life complicated for Ajax. In the 50th minute, Juventus missed a clear chance to double their advantage when Nedved whipped in a sublime cross that a well-positioned Emerson failed to make contact with in front of Vonk's goal.
Nedved on top
Ajax kept going with Nourdin Boukhari soon setting Babel free, only for the youngster’s composure to fail him at the vital moment. Despite the fine effort, Koeman opted for a change in his side's approach and sent in another teenager, Romanian striker Nicolae Mitea, to replace Boukhari. However, the Dutch side were on the back foot once more as Nedved's cross reached Emerson again, only for the Brazilian midfielder's shot to be cleared off the line by Maxwell.
Both sides then made a flurry of changes with Camoranesi and then Ibrahimovic coming off for Ruben Olivera and Olivier Kapo while Koeman subbed in Wesley Sneijder for Nigel De Jong as the Dutch club faced the grim reality of a second consecutive early exit from the Champions League, confirmed by Bayern's win at home against Maccabi Tel-Aviv FC.
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