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May 11, 2006

Ajax at the eleventh hour

Lucky Ajax. Again and again and again.

With only 92 minutes left of their 2005-06-league season Ajax were down and out.

The glitzy Dutch play-off-party seemed destined to start without them, leaving the former four-time European Cup winners with not even a guaranteed UEFA Cup ticket to go along with their cup final appearance.

Then the assistant ref missed two subsequent offsides within a second, enabling Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to equalize against Vitesse.

In the next, injury-time, minute Angelos Charisteas even scored the winner, and, to cut a long story short, three weeks later the club had qualified for the third preliminary round of the Champions League.

To top it all, two injury-time goals in the semi as well as in the final handed them the Dutch Cup. Though coach Danny Blind has still paid the price for overseeing a series of dreadful performances during the regular season.

It made for a spectacular finale, although the title race had been decided as early as February when AZ and Feyenoord stuttered in pursuit while PSV marched on.

The gap with the rest was big enough for both to prepare for an extra competition in which they would eventually fail miserably.

Behind them FC Utrecht had four points on the chasing pack with only three games to go in fourth place and seemed a certainty for European football. (Numbers 2 to 5 were to play for one ticket to the Champions League and the losers at least would have UEFA Cup entry.)

Ajax were then completely outplayed by a visiting AZ, but Alkmaar miraculously could not score, handing the home team three unexpected points. They then survived against Vitesse and overtook Utrecht, who succumbed to the pressure.

Utrecht's head start of a first-minute goal at home against Willem II, quietly preparing for their relegation play-offs for some weeks already, had the adverse effect of freezing the team, resulting in a disastrous 1-4 defeat.

The losing streak was subsequently lengthened in another two play-off games for one remaining UEFA Cup spot, keeping FC Utrecht out of Europe all together. Heerenveen were victors of that little competition in the end.

At second and third respectively, AZ and Feyenoord enjoyed the advantage of starting the play-offs with an away game, which both messed up completely.

Several individual mistakes helped the Feyenoord season to an early finish against Ajax.

If losing 3-0 in the Arena was bad enough, hopes of a decent goodbye to their home fans were shattered when the visitors cantered to a 2-4 win.

A devastated Dirk Kuyt was in tears after the final whistle, which suggests his hankering for Champions League football might see him ply his trade elsewhere next season.

The future of his attacking partner Salomon Kalou is also in doubt as a newspaper revealed that several members of the squad were unhappy with his overall performance.

Meanwhile, the second-placed AZ, who in the past would be prized with entry to the holy European grail, were overrun by a rampant FC Groningen, hit three times in the second half in the new Euroborgstadium.

AZ were very lucky to score in the dying minutes to give themselves a fighting chance for the return.

All was going well in what proved to be the last official game in the ramshackle Alkmaarderhout Stadium with a two goal lead after an hour. But then Danny Buijs deflected a long free-kick into the corner of Henk Timmer's goal, breaking the spirit of a troupe now brutally experiencing how their 18-point advantage on these opponents counted for nothing.

The necessary two extra goals were a bridge too far. Sour grapes for coach Louis van Gaal who used the press conference to showcase his usual gracelessness in defeat.

According to him, FC Groningen had been extremely lucky with a couple of stolen goals, and meanwhile set a record in time-wasteing.

The wrong team went through, as Van Gaal put it. FC Groningen coach Ron Jans forced himself to keep a straight face.

Although football has seen many innovations over the past decades, deciding the score on the merits of best wingplay or who has the most possesion remains not one of them.

As long as we are stuck with counting the goals the football managerial life of Louis van Gaal will struggle.

The play-offs went on without him. While Ron Jans was accused of gatecrashing by jealous opponents, Ajax coach Danny Blind lacked the backing of his own directors. Blind was convinced, rightly, that his days were numbered.

Although his contract ran another season, he was kept out of every meeting that concerned planning or signings for next year while public support evaporated. Blind would have appreciated a white lie from the club's board that their confidence in him was never in doubt.

It didn't come and now, he felt, his work was made very difficult. However, having let down their coach for most of the season, the squad suddenly stood up on his behalf.

They played well against Feyenoord and could have stuffed FC Groningen with more than the two goals they ended up with in the home leg of the play-offs final.

This almost became fatal in the away leg, when their green-and-white opponents equalized on aggregate early in the second half and Blind's team seemed to surrender without a fight in the 'green hell' of the Euroborgstadium.

FC Groningen then settled for extra-time but panicked when Ajax discovered some last-gasp breath to penetrate into the other half almost for the first time in the game.

After some small chances a well-placed shot from outside the box by fresh substitute Wesley Sneijder silenced the home crowd to propel the reborn Blind-led outfit into a European shangri-la with only a couple of minutes left on the clock.

Groningen still enjoyed their unexpected ticket to the UEFA Cup, although Jans acknowledged how his club may never come closer to a Champions League entry than that night.

For Ajax there was yet another prize to win. After a standstill of three weeks PSV were in wait in the Dutch Cup Final at Rotterdam's De Kuip.

The semi-final in April had seen Klaas-Jan Huntelaar equalise in the 93th minute against Roda JC only for his team to win 4-1 in extra-time.

The final had almost the same script, except the teams were level near the death.

After a tense game with lots of cards in several colours it was no surprise that the 'Dutch Gerd Müller', who was also crowned as top scorer in the Eredivisie with 33 goals, emerged as the jack-in-the-box.

PSV defender Michael Ball hesitated in the 91st minute and it became 2-1. One wonders if we would have ever heard of Ajax if games were 85 minutes long instead of 90.

There was no such luck for Blind after the celebrations.

According to several sources Henk ten Cate has completed negotiations with Ajax and will coach the club next year.

Having won the Johan Cruyff-Schaal (Dutch Super Cup), reached the second round of the Champions League, won the Dutch Cup and qualified for the Champions League Danny Blind can point at an impeccable list of honours this season, but is man enough to realize that his team performed badly on the pitch for most of the time.

And that is unacceptable in the Amsterdam Arena.

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