Ten Hag proud despite 'cruel' defeat

Ajax's Dutch coach Erik Ten Hag takes part in a training session in Amsterdam, on May 7, 2019.
Ajax's Dutch coach Erik Ten Hag takes part in a training session in Amsterdam, on May 7, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

AMSTERDAM • Praises have flowed for the Ajax academy graduates, who have stayed true to the "total football" philosophy espoused by Johan Cruyff in their rousing run from the qualifiers to the final four of the Champions League.

However, after failing to end a 24-year European Cup drought on Wednesday, the reality dawned on coach Erik ten Hag and his players that his team will now inevitably be broken up in the summer.

The Dutch league leaders were undone 3-2 on the night by a Lucas Moura hat-trick, including his added-time goal that punched Tottenham's ticket to the final on away goals despite the tie ending 3-3.

This season, Ajax have been a butterfly team, here for one glorious summer, but whose wings are already beginning to disintegrate a little in the sunlight.

Yet ten Hag found consolation in their "fantastic" European campaign despite the heartbreaking nature of their semi-final exit.

He said: "Football can be very beautiful and it can be very cruel. We have had to experience that today. We were one second away from the final and for that, our team deserves a very big compliment. I'm very proud of my players."

Despite his pride, he rued the golden opportunity that slipped through their fingers, after goals from Matthijs de Ligt and Hakim Ziyech gave them a commanding 3-0 aggregate lead.

The Dutchman added: "If you're 2-0 up, you have to make sure you win and we failed to do that. In the first phase after half-time, we lost our grip on the game, they played a more opportunistic game.

"At 2-2, we dominated again and we created chances. It's very bitter that none of those went in and they scored a very fortunate goal in the last seconds, maybe even past what should have been the last second."

De Ligt heads a list of names that will likely be sold, including Ziyech, who hit the post; David Neres, who was injured during the warm-up; and Donny van de Beek, the first-leg match-winner. Frenkie de Jong has already agreed a blockbuster move to Barcelona.

While captain-defender de Ligt, 19, admitted he "did not know how to recover from this" and that it was "a dream that went bad", he told Dutch TV channel Veronica that Ajax were still going to fight for a domestic double.

The Dutch Cup winners lead the Eredivisie on goal difference from PSV Eindhoven with two matches left.

REUTERS, THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2019, with the headline 'Ten Hag proud despite 'cruel' defeat'. Print Edition | Subscribe