| AC Milan’s Paolo Maldini controls the ball as he is challenged by Hatem Trabelsi of Ajax during the Champions League quarter final in Amsterdam Tuesday. (Reuters)
Amsterdam: Ajax Amsterdam and AC Milan battled to a goalless stalemate in the first leg of their Champions League quarter final on Tuesday to leave the Italians favourites to reach the last four of the competition.
Despite some high quality passing and goal chances for both teams, neither side could find the net but Milan will be the happier with the home leg to come on April 23. The winners of this tie will play either Inter Milan or Valencia in the semi-finals early next month.
Milan striker Andriy Shevchenko forced Ajax keeper Bogdan Lobont into a fine save with a fierce shot after just five minutes in the clearest opening of the first half.
Hatem Trabelsi interrupted a fluent move between Rui Costa, Shevchenko and Filippo Inzaghi, otherwise Inzaghi would have had free passage to the Ajax goal.
Gradually, Ajax began to take control of the midfield, although they had little to show for their supremacy apart from a Rafael van der Vaart header that was saved by Dida.
Milan were forced into making a substitution after 26 minutes when former Ajax player Clarence Seedorf, who was injured in a tackle with Trabelsi a few minutes earlier, was replaced by Serginho.
After Milan suffered that setback, Ajax put the visitors under more pressure, and a back pass from Alessandro Costacurta put his goalkeeper Dida under pressure from the chasing Ajax forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Gennaro Gattuso picked up the first yellow card of the match for hauling down Ajax’s American John O’Brien which rules Gattuso out of the second leg.
Milan dominated for much of the second half but the midfield failed to create much for Inzaghi and Shevchenko.
Ajax kept coming forward though and 12 minutes after the break Ibrahimovic shot wide after combining well with Steven Pienaar.
Milan seemed set to take the lead in the 71st minute but Lobont pulled off a fine save from Milan midfielder Massimo Ambrosini.
Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti replaced Inzaghi and Shevchenko with Rivaldo and Jon Dahl Tomasson for the closing stages, but they barely had a chance to shine.
Ajax coach Ronald Koeman threw on Jari Litmanen in place of the tiring Ibrahimovic but the Finn, out since last December with injury, clearly lacked match fitness and had only a minimal impact on the game.
The veteran Paolo Maldini and his fellow defenders — especially Alessandro Nesta — played well to give Milan every confidence of advancing in two weeks time.
Ajax Amsterdam: Bogdan Lobont; Hatem Trabelsi, Petri Pasanen (Nigel de Jong 74), Cristian Chivu, John O’Brien; Steven Pienaar, Tomas Galasek (Wesley Sneijder 67), Abubakari Yakubu, Maxwell; Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Jari Litmanen 73), Rafael van der Vaart.
AC Milan: Dida; Dario Simic, Alessandro Nesta, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta; Rui Costa, Gennaro Gattuso, Massimo Ambrosini, Clarence Seedorf (Serginho 26); Andriy Shevchenko (Rivaldo 79), Filippo Inzaghi (Jon Dahl Tomasson 73).
Referee: Terje Hauge (Norway).
Ajax Amsterdam coach Koeman, however, is confident his team can advance to the last four. “A 0-0 draw is still a good result for us because we have shown in the past we can score anywhere,” Koeman said after the match.
The tie remains open and Milan midfielder Rui Costa was impressed with the Dutch side, who made most of the running against the defensively-minded visitors.
“They have a very young squad, but they perform like a well-organised team,” said the Portuguese international midfielder.
“We experienced too many problems with our passing game. Only in the first half did we do well and not give them any space.”
Milan forward Andriy Shevchenko, who missed the best chance of the match after four minutes, said that his team had learned about Ajax’s strengths and weaknesses.
“We should have pressurised them more then we did,” said the Ukrainian. “We will need a different mentality in Milan to claim our spot in the semis.”
Meanwhile, Italian newspapers criticised AC Milan for betraying their roots in playing out a defensive 0-0 draw.
“The Milan made to measure for the Champions League was the one that garnered praise in the first two group stages, not the timid formation that bustled around the Amsterdam Arena to bag an inglorious draw,” commented La Gazzetta dello Sport.
Milan’s defensive performance was taken as further confirmation that they were no longer the free-wheeling, rapid-fire side that dismantled opponents so easily at the beginning of the season.
“The video of the match will be good only for watching again the gaping errors committed by everyone,” continued La Gazzetta, which put Milan’s continued survival in the competition down to Ajax’s inability to find the net.
“The truth is that for the whole match Milan were forced to pursue a multinational side of juniors constitutionally incapable of scoring.
“(Ajax coach Ronald) Koeman has perfectly indoctrinated them in positioning, passing and movement, but no manager could invent the top class striker that the Dutch side lack.