Roberto Mancini warned his players.
Nothing less than a win would do.
As Samir Nasri neatly dispatched the opening goal, City's chances of progression looked healthy. The team took control after stuttering through the first 20 minutes. An air of inevitability sank in.
While Ajax looked threatening on the break, it seemed Kenneth Vermeer would be the busier of the two goalkeepers.
Siem De Jong drilled home a surprising equaliser before the break. Just a blotch on an otherwise comfortable night, we all thought.
Twelve minutes into the second half, that blotch turned into an immovable stain on City's Champions League hopes.
Mancini is a man of action.
He removed a lethargic Joleon Lescott from proceedings. Aleksandar Kolarov replaced the Englishman as the team shifted to a dynamic 3-5-2 formation.
Sky Sports commentators Martin Tyler and Gary Neville indicated Gael Clichy was confused with the change in emphasis.
Minutes later, Christian Eriksen's teasing effort deflected off the French defender for Ajax's third.
Mancini acted once more.
Carlos Tevez replaced Gareth Barry in the 71st minute. Seven minutes later, Mario Balotelli came on for James Milner.
The team's formation descended into utter chaos across the final 10 minutes. Four strikers floated uneasily across the pitch—only Edin Dzeko remained in a central position.
City won a handful of corners. Ajax's gutsy defence continued to clear the danger and managed to mount one or two effective breaks up the field.
Mancini's men created a couple of chances in an attack-heavy 3-3-4 formation. Fullbacks became centrebacks, strikers became wingers and Mancini became unraveled.
His players are partly to blame.
Only Edin Dzeko, Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy and James Milner successfully completed a dribble all night. Dzeko was the only player to finish more than one run.
Such statistics underline an uncharacteristic lack of confidence.
Yaya Toure failed to burst forward with the ball—a trait that often leads to City success.
While it's perhaps unfair to single out the excellent Ivorian's failings, his struggling display sums up a team that continues to struggle on the European stage.
Only Joe Hart's performance should be commended.
He produced a decent save from Tobias Sana's chance to make it 4-1. You have to wonder where City would be without Hart this season.
Mancini provided mixed messages in his post-match interview (via The Daily Mail):
It was probably my fault because I prepared badly for this game. I didn't prepare the players and I'm at fault for the defeat.
When you prepare for a game sometimes it is different to what you expect.
We played a bad game. We had a few chances to score but the players didn't really play well.
Mancini likes to remove the pressure from his players—it's a trick the Italian has employed on a number of occasions.
In this instance, I feel he naturally blamed himself before quietly admitting he isn't sure where the complications lie .
In the wake of City's lucky Champions League draw with Borussia Dortmund, Mancini suggested he knew how to quickly fix the team's problems (via The Manchester Evening News)
It seems he was making small talk to appease City fans. His constant tinkering played a huge part in the club's Dutch downfall.
Mancini added to problem with indecision and his need for change.
With City on the brink of elimination from Europe, the Italian's pre-match warning seems to be the only thing he got right on the entire trip.