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For Maarten Stekelenburg, AFC Ajax's UEFA Champions League ambitions dimmed the moment they were placed in the same group as AC Milan and Real Madrid CF. But if things have turned out largely as anticipated by the Dutch international goalkeeper, he hopes they can at least claim the consolation of a UEFA Europa League berth when they complete their Group G programme at Milan on Wednesday.
"When you draw Real Madrid, Milan and Auxerre, you know it will be very difficult," said Stekelenburg. "Of course you focus mostly on third place, for the Europa League, and you hope for what everybody thinks would be an upset. It was possible for a long time. We have to forget the first match because at Madrid we weren't ourselves and deservedly lost. But then Milan came to visit and we took a good point and after that we won against Auxerre, so we were in good shape."
Unfortunately for Stekelenburg and Co, the picture soon changed with an "unnecessary" defeat at AJ Auxerre, followed by the 4-0 home loss to Madrid on Matchday 5 in which he and his team-mates were "outclassed". He added: "Then it looked completely different. The second round of the Champions League won't be possible, but the Europa League is the highest thing we can achieve at the moment, so we'll go for that."
To hold on to third place, Ajax – a point ahead of Auxerre – need only better or match the French side's result in Madrid. "I don't expect Auxerre to win in Madrid, but you never know, so actually we need to try to get a good result against Milan," explained Stekelenburg, who hopes Ajax can apply the lessons learned in September's 1-1 home draw with the Rossoneri.
"If you go back to the match here at the ArenA, we started well and were actually trying to put them under pressure. That comes with risks, because you can't forget that Milan have fantastic players and they can outplay you or you can suffer on a counterattack. We got to 1-0 and you wonder 'should we go on or should we drop back? Should we first take more control?' At a certain point, there was a mistake when we tried to play offside, which completely failed and which got punished almost immediately. We hope we've learned from that for the return match."
The goalkeeper believes that the entire campaign has provided an important learning curve for a club competing in the UEFA Champions League for the first time since 2005/06. "You know that the Champions League is the highest thing. The level is much higher than the Dutch league and mistakes will be punished immediately, so you have to be even more focused and try to give away even less.
"It's just a learning curve for the young kids," he added. "We have a very young team, with many players in their early 20s. I'm only 28 and for a goalkeeper that's quite young, but I'm already one of the oldest on the pitch. I experienced it myself when I first came to Ajax – I also played a lot of Champions League games and that makes you stronger. It's a good way of learning for the boys."
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