An exacting performance from Europe’s exciting young team, against a Tottenham Hotspur that are going to have to do so much more to keep this Champions League dream alive.
This 1-0 win wasn’t the complete football exhibition it initially promised to be from Ajax, but was an exhibition of other qualities. As Spurs tried to bludgeon them after Donny van de Beek’s brilliant early goal, they showed their mature resolve, and a resilience.
That doesn’t bode well for Spurs’ attempts to overturn this semi-final in the second leg, but they will at least have Son Heung-min back, if not Jan Vertonghen. The defender’s head injury will prompt a lot of questions about how he was allowed back onto the pitch before looking like he was going to collapse but, as regards the play, the change it necessitated did prompt a recovery from Spurs that at least prevented Ajax pretty much securing a place in the Madrid final in this first leg.
The first half-hour was one of those exhibitions that you sense will come to be seen as a signature spell for a team, one of those periods of play permanently looked back on. Ajax were that good; that dominant.
Tottenham haven’t been given a chasing like this in a long time, by any team, in any stadium. Few stadiums in Europe will have witnessed such moments of realisation like this, that this is no surprise under-dog. Ajax looked as good as pretty much any prestige side over the last decade.
The excellence of the technical execution was good enough, but to combine it with such fluency of movement was so often spectacular.
That was conducted by the brilliant Frenkie de Jong, with everything stemming from his sense of control. He decided when to up it, when to slow it, when to cut through, when to open out.
The goal was such a natural follow-on from this, as well as the outlet provided by the clever running of attackers like Van de Beek.
From that wider player, Ajax’s control and movement in tight spaces is then just exquisite. So it was that Hakim Ziyech slipped Van de Beek in, for the midfielder to hit another angled finish.
The Spurs defence did seem to stop at that moment, apparently thinking it was offside. That was checked by referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco and given, but wasn’t the only time the home backline needed to take a moment.
It also emphasised it wasn’t all Ajax.
Pochettino already had a tactical dilemma without the outlets of Harry Kane and Son up front, or the direction of Harry Winks in the middle, but the decision to go with three at the back against a false nine in Dusan Tadic seemed to further play into Ajax’s feet and just open up more space for them.
The three centre-halves just didn’t know where to go.
It was why the obviously more important real-life problem of Vertonghen’s injury did bring an in-game solution for Pochettino.
It forced him to go to his most experienced player on the bench, in Moussa Sissoko, and also to four in the middle.
It was very quickly a different game. Spurs had cut off Ajax’s channels of attack, and were now picking up steam themselves, if mostly through the running of Lucas Moura.
Their pressure was nowhere near as aesthetically pleasing as the Dutch side’s, but it was just effective. The game became about physicality against finesse.
Spurs were now hoping to bludgeon Ajax back, but it only brought forth a different set of qualities from a young side: impressive resolve.
They held their ground with less possession, and instead looked to try and pick Spurs off when they could. One such moment almost led to what would surely have been the clinching goal, as Tadic fed David Neres to hit the inside of the post.
They didn’t get that second goal, but did get a remarkable third successive away win in the Champions League knock-outs.
That is hugely impressive. That is the team Spurs must overcome.
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