Ajax’s miraculous Champions League season took another step forward at the new stadium on Tottenham High Road, with a victory that showcased the daring of their attacking play and then the resolve of this fine young team of all the talents. They have a one-goal lead to defend on Wednesday in the semi-final second leg, and while this is a Spurs team who missed so many of their vital parts, it was impossible not to admire what this Dutch side can do.
The first-half goal from Donny van de Beek defined the passing and speed of thought of Ajax, and after that they handled whatever Spurs could throw at them. Having eliminated Real Madrid and Juventus, this time Ajax were up against a club of more modest means and yet there is still no comparison when it comes to Spurs and their visitors.
Ajax are not even among Europe’s 30 wealthiest clubs. They played three rounds of qualifying just for the privilege of reaching the group stage, beginning 10 days after the World Cup final. Yet they have shown you do not have to be rich to play a Champions League final – you just have to be very good.
One game from that final in Madrid that would be era-defining for either club, and while Spurs have come back from unpromising circumstances before, victory in Amsterdam will be their greatest escape yet. For Mauricio Pochettino, their manager, this was the biggest game of his Spurs life and he faced it with his options diminished through injury and suspension and it is only getting worse.
Jan Vertonghen staggered off five minutes before the break with a blow to the head that was serious enough to render him immobile on the touchline, on the brink of collapse and retching. The Belgian would later emerge from the home dressing room at the end of the game to declare that he had passed all the concussions tests and just experienced a feeling of weakness.
There had been blood from a cut to the nose and some wobbliness that added to the drama, but Pochettino was adamant later that his centre-half, who came back on briefly, had been subject to the concussion protocols test. As a manager he said he had left the decision to his medical staff.
Spurs had been trying to exploit the obvious weakness in Ajax at set-pieces when Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld came up to challenge for a free-kick. Vertonghen smashed his forehead into the back of his team-mate’s head and lengthy treatment ensued. Plus a change of a bloodied shirt – and then bloodied shorts, too – for the Spurs man.
He came back on following a discussion between the referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz, Pochettino, the club doctor Chris Hughes and the player himself.
Moments later Vertonghen made no attempt to play a ball in his direction, raised a hand and walked to the touchline. This time he was coming off.
Spurs had already reorganised into a flat back four with Rose in midfield, and he came back into left-back to make room for the incoming substitute Moussa Sissoko.
No Harry Kane, no Son Heung-min, no Harry Winks and Sissoko only called from the bench in difficult circumstances towards the end of the first half. They will have Son for the second leg and that will make adifference to a team who had one shot on target all evening.
The standout performance in that respect was Lucas Moura, a foraging, determined force against an Ajax side who are good at directing their opposition into closed spaces. They did that time and again in a second half when their focus was on controlling the game.
By comparison, there were times in the first half when Spurs simply could not live with the pace at which their visitors played, nor could they set the tempo when it was all they could do to hang on to the coat-tails of Ajax. There were standout performances from Van de Beek and Frenkie de Jong, these great, risky passers of the Ajax midfield, and from the Moroccan Hakim Ziyech the confidence to do everything at such a ferocious pace.
Spurs were being passed through in spaces they scarcely realised existed.
The goal came in the 15th minute, and an indicator of just how outplayed Spurs had been in that particular move was that Van de Beek had time to look up, and sit Hugo Lloris down with one feint to shoot. Then he picked his spot past the goalkeeper’s right hand.
It was Rose who had been the last Spurs man left grasping at thin air for the goal. The move spread out to the left by a beautiful pass from Ziyech, then zipped back across the face of the area from the Brazilian David Neres to the Dane Lasse Schone and back to Ziyech, who picked out Van de Beek mid-turn. The only part of the move that took any time was the deliberate deception in Van de Beek’s finish.
The show had been the first half. What followed from Ajax was the shrewd job of containing Spurs. Relentless in the opening stages, Schone was relieved of his duties after the hour. In the meantime, the best chance of the game’s late stages fell to Neres, the final point in a move from right to left across the Spurs area and the ball presented to him by Dusan Tadic.
Like Van de Beek before him, there was time to choose a spot and, although Neres’s shot beat Lloris, it clipped the goalkeeper’s left post. Pochettino looked to his bench and saw few options to change the game.
That will have to be next week now and for the time being the tie is not out of reach. Although Spurs saw enough to know that Ajax are capable of sewing this up very quickly indeed
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