Where Rangers go from here in a Group A that also features Napoli and Liverpool may not be pretty. This was an ugly display featuring a defence that failed to defend and a sieve-like midfield that was an open invitation for Ajax to execute their clever pass-and-move play.
At the break the Dutch champions had enjoyed 74% of the possession. If there was a number to rate the invention of their opponents then zero would not have been unfair on Rangers, whose manager, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, seemed to have instructed them to sit as far back as possible and hope that they could somehow conjure a goal.
As the final whistle neared, Van Bronckhorst had to endure the Ajax faithful gleefully sing, “Gio, take your garbage home,” their delight surely enhanced by him being a former Feyenoord player. This was a second 4-0 reverse on the bounce, following Saturday’s humiliation at Celtic.
“It’s eight goals [allowed] in two games – too much for Rangers, that can never happen,” a sombre Van Bronckhorst said. “You can lose a game but not with so much difference. The level we reached in the first half is not the level needed to be competitive in the Champions League – there was a difference in passing, movement, thinking.”
At the start of the second half Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds rang out, its “don’t worry about a thing” line particularly apt for Ajax due to Rangers’ refusal to offer anything that might concern. Had Van Bronckhorst given his charges a roasting at the interval? The way they continued to stand off Ajax suggested not. At this juncture three changes were made – Rabbi Matondo, Ryan Jack and Leon King for James Tavernier, Scott Wright and Malik Tillman as the manager shifted to a novel 5-2-3 shape. But even when Borna Barisic did find Ajax’s net later on VAR ruled (correctly) that Ryan Kent was offside.
Rangers had understood how Alfred Schreuder’s men hoped to prosper from the start: have Daley Blind or Devyne Rensch feed balls to Steven Bergwijn and Dusan Tadic further along the full-backs’ flanks and hit Mohammed Kudus, the frontman, or a midfield runner. Factor in another Steven– Berghuis – dropping into pockets and Ajax were operating as their storied pedigree demands.
Berghuis created Ajax’s opener from a more conventional mode by delivering a corner from the right that peppered Jon McLaughlin’s goal: James Sands failed to pick up Edson Álvarez and he rose under no pressure to head home.
This, 17 minutes in, was the opening calamity for Rangers and spoke of a team still reeling from the Celtic trouncing. Already it was a mismatch. Even when Rangers launched a foray Wright, running in from wide, could not stab a toe at a cross with Remko Pasveer’s goal gaping. The Ajax team were as vibrant as Johan Cruyff Arena had been when transformed into the flag-waving cauldron that greeted Rangers’ ending of a 12-year absence from this stage of the competition.
Schreuder was soon celebrating again. Kudus passed to Berghuis and his effort beat McLaughlin via a ricochet off Sands – a midfielder asked to fill in at centre-back. Moments later Kudus engineered a supreme solo effort, collecting on the left, twisting and surging forward, by-passing Tavernier, the Rangers captain, as if he were a schoolboy, before hammering in off the far post. This was game over with 11 minutes left of the opening half and Ajax continued to coast despite a summer talent-drain headlined by Antony’s €95m move to Manchester United and which also included Lisandro Martínez (United too), Sébastien Haller (Borussia Dortmund) and Ryan Gravenberch (Bayern Munich).
Rangers lack of defiance pointed to Van Bronckhorst, strangely, being unable to rouse his troops despite this being a glamour occasion against one of the continent’s A-list names. In the closing phase Kudus went close to weaving through in Ricky Villa, 1981 FA Cup final-style to score with an equally memorable finish before a last-ditch challenge stymied the 22-year-old Ghanaian. With 10 minutes left Bergwijn latched on to Jack’s sloppy back-pass to give Rangers a second, humiliating 4-0 reverse on the bounce.
Van Bronckhorst said: “I told the players [afterwar