Manchester City are still in with a shout of progressing to the knock-out stage of the Champions League but in truth it is little more than a death-bed whisper. So quiet for so long, City ended screaming invective here as they were denied a penalty when Mario Balotelli had his shirt pulled by Ricardo van Rhijn seconds before the final whistle.
This was a huge call by the Danish officials. The referee, Peter Rasmussen, was instantly surrounded by Balotelli and Sergio Aguero. City's captain Vincent Kompany and Samir Nasri helped shepherd Balotelli away. Others in blue complained loudly about assorted offside decisions.
City's manager, Roberto Mancini, was also on the pitch, making his point loudly to Rasmussen, before sensibly retreating and congratulating Frank De Boer, who has fashioned this neat, nimble Ajax side who have pushed City's European under-achievers towards the brink of humiliation. City, still bottom, must win their last two games and hope Ajax at least draw with Real Madrid, who drew with Borussia Dortmund last night (Tuesday).
In contrast to City's expensive ensemble, Ajax's 18-man squad had been assembled for a shade under pounds 10 million, including eight graduates from their De Toekomst academy in the starting line-up alone. One of them, Ryan Babel, was immediately involved, gliding past Kompany with alarming ease. City's defence was even more wooden at corners as again Mancini's zonal system was exposed.
City settled briefly early, playing with slightly more urgency than in the Amsterdam Arena, pressing higher up the pitch. Hope flowed when Yaya Toure and Carlos Tevez began building a move from right to left, asri taking the ball on and finding Aguero, whose shot was deflected. Then Pablo Zabaleta powered through but shot over.
Mancini reflected the increased desire, standing at the edge of his technical area, hands in pockets, that scarf wrapped loosely around his neck. He must have felt like throttling his defence after nine minutes. Or rethinking his zonal tactics.
Twice they were opened up and punished from Christian Eriksen corners. His first from the right was met by Niklas Moisander, the ball falling past blue shirts strung out and as responsive as laundry on a washing line. The unmarked De Jong scored from a relatively tight angle. Joe Hart was left unprotected by his defence, although City's keeper could have taken charge more.
After 17 minutes, City really were staring into the abyss. All the Champions League ambitions of this Croesus-rich club looked to be disappearing in a cloud of disappointment and poor defending. Eriksen curled over a corner from the left and City again resembled statues.
Ajax's players came flying in, able to rise quicker than their static City defenders. Again De Jong had the telling touch, escaping from Toure, who seemed tied by rope to his starting position. De Jong carried on and scored with a flicked header at the near post where City had failed to station a sentry. 'Always look on the bright side of life', chanted the joyous Ajax fans.
City were going out without a fight, even without a shout. Finally sensing the gathering ignominy, Mancini's men responded. Nasir crossed from the right and Yaya Toure's response was of the highest order.
Controlling the ball on his chest, the Ivory Coast international dispatched a powerful right-footed volley past Kenneth Vermeer. City saw a glimmer of hope.
The noise still came from the visitors. City fans were strangely subdued. Their Champions League dream was at risk but they continued to be outsung by the Dutch. There was no anger, no raging against the dying of their Champions League light. It was the Ajax fans responsible for the rising decibel levels.
City still pushed on, slightly unconvincingly, for an equaliser. Zabaleta and Nasri linked up before the Argentinian lifted in a cross that Ricardo van Rhijn cleared under pressure, and a foul, from Barry. Then Javi Garcia drove in a ball that Zabaleta met with a header easily held by Vermeer.
Ajax's keeper then held a Toure header. Toure seemed City's main outlet, their forward focus with Aguero and Tevez moving around him.
Ajax stayed calm, stayed true to their passing game. They kept working the ball from side to side, stretching City, Babel and De Jong switching play. City were chasing shadows for a period. Eriksen, continuing to send the pulse-rates of admiring Premier League managers racing, ghosted past Nasri.
Mancini acted at the break, sending on Balotelli and withdrawing Garcia.
Balotelli sought to insinuate his way in from the left but Van Rhijn, such a pacey, mobile prospect, kept tracking his runs. Only when Balotelli went more central did City fully threaten. Ajax were defending deep but still capable of a counter. Hart needed to be at his agile best to deny De Jong. City still threatened occasionally, particularly through Aguero, but the striker kept slipping at critical moments. Mancini twisted again, sending on Edin Dzeko for Tevez, who had run hard for no reward. Ajax resisted City's surge, pushing forward smoothly, looking for a third. Such was Eriksen's clever movement, particularly down the right, that left-back Gael Clichy pleaded with his midfielders to cover back. Ajax continued to press down Clichy's flank. Van Rhijn, effortlessly found by Eriksen, crossed and Zabaleta, slightly panicking, bundled it out for a corner. Then Hart needed to fling himself to his left to keep out De Jong's free-kick.
With 16 minutes remaining, City went direct, Balotelli flicking on and there was Aguero equalising with a firm shot. City fans really woke up, really getting behind the team. 'We're Manchester City, we'll fight to the end,' the home hordes chanted. They had to score. Balotelli went close.
Aguero looked City's best source of hope, attacking the end where he so famously gave them the title in that dramatic win over QPR last season. They kept pushing forward, inevitably leaving space at the back. Van Rhijn delivered another cross which Kompany headed out.
Mancini made his last change. Barry was withdrawn, departing to warm applause, for Aleksandar Kolarov. He immediately gave them width on the left, playing in some inviting balls. Dzeko went close. Then Kolarov was adjudged offside when whipping in a ball that Aguero turned in at the near-post. Mancini was incensed.