A brilliant second-half goal from Dejan Stanković was enough for FC Internazionale Milano to seal a narrow victory against AFC Ajax and book a UEFA Champions League quarter-final date with Villarreal CF.
Stanković struck just before the hour to give the Serie A club a 3-2 aggregate triumph, but the scoreline failed to do justice to a dominant second-leg display by Inter. Adriano missed a first-half penalty and Obafemi Martins thundered a long-range shot against the crossbar but it was Stanković who was the scourge of Ajax. The 27-year-old had registered the crucial first as Roberto Mancini's men came from behind to draw at the Amsterdam ArenA, and his goal tonight proved unassailable.
The Dutch side had enjoyed a blistering opening to the first encounter three weeks ago, taking a 2-0 lead inside 20 minutes. That fuelled accusations of Inter being slow starters in some sections of the Italian media, but they began the second leg very brightly, with Luís Figo firing just over the crossbar early on. The home support were also a factor as the Inter fans returned to the stands in vociferous droves after the team had played their three home group games behind closed doors.
Martins was at the centre of much of the Nerazzurri's early pressure, as he and Adriano linked up well in attack. The pair almost combined to create an opportunity on ten minutes when the Nigerian drifted towards the left flank and lobbed in a measured cross for his strike partner. The ball would not fall for Adriano but his acrobatic effort was sufficiently off target to drop kindly to the lurking Figo, whose adroit chip floated narrowly wide.
Ajax were struggling to gain a foothold as an absence of the shape coach Danny Blind had constantly referred to in the build-up to this match stunted their moves. The lack of cohesion was equally evident in defence and although fit-again Hedwiges Maduro impressed, he was left standing after ten minutes when Martins's fine long-range shot rattled the crossbar. By now, Ajax were having to contend with wave after wave of Inter attacks and the pressure eventually told.
Anonymous for much of the first half, Stanković advanced up the left flank on 25 minutes and his cross hit the arm of Ajax captain Olaf Lindenbergh. Adriano failed to convert though, his feeble attempt rolling the wrong side of the post, and that proved a wake-up call for the visitors. Right-back Hatem Trabelsi started to push further upfield, allowing Mauro Rosales more space, and ten minutes before half-time the Argentinian finally forced Francesco Toldo to make a save.
Back in control
The respite proved fleeting and a Figo effort within seconds of the restart indicated the return of Inter supremacy. Three minutes later Adriano jinked past Thomas Vermaelen before lifting the ball agonisingly across goal with Martins unable to reach it. Any disappointment was short-lived, however, as less than ten minutes later Stanković finally broke the deadlock with a sumptuous strike. Walter Samuel's searching ball found the Serbo-Montenegrin midfielder unmarked and after shimmying inside the wrong-footed Maduro, he rifled the ball into the far corner.
The goal increased the onus on Ajax – they now needed to score twice – but rather than spurring them to throw caution to the wind, it was Inter who began to press at every occasion, and Adriano drew a smart stop from Maarten Stekelenburg. Blind brought on Ryan Babel to help his flagging strikers late on and although the youngster posed a problem, he directed his one glimmer of goal over the bar as the majority of the Giuseppe Meazza crowd started to celebrate reaching the last eight for the third time in four seasons.