By Oliver Platt
Roberto Mancini looked back at the referee and his assistants and shook his head in disgust but the damage was already done. Manchester City are all but out of the Champions League.
For the second season running Sheikh Mansour's millions have failed to propel the current Premier League champions beyond the group stage.
Vincent Kompany was a walking embodiment of City's performance in his interview immediately after the final whistle; a mixture of confusion and apparent tiredness. Yet again, Mancini's team struggled to get going until they were kicked harshly into gear when Ajax raced into a two-goal lead.
Mancini has said that a lack of experience is hurting City in Europe. When asked if he agreed with his manager's assessment, Kompany muster up only a dazed "I don't know" before reeling off the usual captain's response of learning from each match.
It is true that Mario Balotelli should have had a penalty in the final seconds when he was pulled down from behind by Ricardo van Rhijn. It is true that Aleksandar Kolarov was unfortunate to be flagged offside when he crossed for Sergio Aguero to score a third goal. But, the situation City found themselves in as the final whistle drew closer at the Etihad Stadium was of their own making.
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Mancini had appeared unable to decide whether City still had a chance of qualification before the match. The crowd at Eastlands on Tuesday night had apparently adopted the more pessimistic outlook. This should have been a crunch match for a team buoyed by the novelty of their involvement in the Champions League but instead the atmosphere was as subdued as City's display in the first half.
After 17 minutes they were two goals behind. Matija Nastasic did not look comfortable from the outset, slicing a clearance behind for a corner from which Ajax took the lead, but he would surely benefit if he was able to feed off the air of confidence and invincibility that Kompany and Joe Hart seem to have lost.
Yaya Toure, normally so reliably brilliant on the biggest of stages, twice did not bother to track the run of Siem de Jong from set-piece situations.
Twice, the Ajax captain beat Hart with superb finishes. Three City players stood motionless around the penalty spot the first time around, quite incredibly allowing the ball to land at Niklas Moisander's feet. Moisander directed it back across goal and De Jong did the rest.
Then, after Toure had again lost his man, Gareth Barry was caught on his heels, failing to attack Christian Eriksen's cross to the near post. Toure pulled one back before half-time with a brilliant volley and City were better for the introduction of Balotelli after the break, but they will convince no one that they have turned the corner this season until they stop making it so difficult for themselves in the first place.
Mancini was as drained as Kompany when he took questions, struggling to summon up the energy to provide any insight into the 90 minutes he had watched. His words were limited to complaints about the officials and an insistence that his team had played well, the two goals they had conceded apart.
It is difficult to tell what came first; the team's weariness or Mancini's. It seems likely that each has contributed to the other. Another European adventure might be over but if City do not lift themselves out of their funk soon, they will find their domestic hopes in a terminal state, too.