Advantage Ajax as Spurs stumble
Spurs must now win in Amsterdam next Wednesday to earn a place in the Champions League final.
30 April, 2019 — By Dan Carrier
UEFA Champions League
Semi Final, first leg
Ajax 1 (Donny van de Beek 15)
Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
IT is, the Spurs players can tell themselves, only half time, and there is only a goal in it – but for Mauricio Pochettino, the dream of reaching the club’s first Champions League final faded a little tonight as his patched up team just did not have enough about them to keep a crucial clean sheet or inflict damage on Ajax’s goal.
A first half strike by Donny van de Beek was enough to give the Dutch team a crucial away goal to take into next Wednesday’s return tie – and while Spurs grew in to things as the game progressed, they still did not have the nous to unpick their opponents. To go to Holland and win – which is what is now required – will mean a significant improvement on tonight’s performance.
Speaking after the game, Mauricio Pochettino issued a rallying call to his charges, insisting they could dig themselves out of the hole very much of their own creation.
He said: “We are alive. It’s only 1-0. We need to believe we can go there and win the game.”
He added that he felt his players had been over awed a little by Ajax’s movement in the first period – but eventually got to grips with their opponents.
“In the first half we did not start in a good way,” he said.
“Ajax showed more energy, it was difficult for us to play.
“After we conceded the goal – 25 to 30 minutes in – we started to be in the game. Moussa Sissoko provided good energy.
“Second half we pushed them and tried to create chances. It was an even game in the second half.”
Yet while Spurs certainly had Ajax pressed back in the second half, the loss of both key strikers Harry Kane and Heung Min Son showed the limitations of what Pochettino’s team can do: for all the balls thrown into the box, for all the passes into the channels, when push came to shove there was simply not the goal threat waiting at the end of any decent approach play.
Ajax, on the other hand, required about five minutes to steady themselves. They let Spurs come at them, as if to say let’s see what you’ve got – and then after allowing Tottenham a bright-ish beginning got hold of the ball and said: now it is our turn.
Perhaps Spurs were guilty of standing off, giving too much respect – but it also has to be noted for a significant passage of play in the first half, a passage that would give Ajax a one goal advantage – the Dutch side played with freedom, movement, slickness and resilience. No wonder they blew away Juventus and Real Madrid in the knock out stages on route to this semi.
On 15, van de Beek placed an effort low beyond the stranded Hugo Lloris, and with Spurs being pulled out of position across the park, it seemed a killer second was on the cards.
However, what started as a little twist of bad luck for Spurs actually tilted things in their direction. Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld both went up for a cross and collided as they kept their eyes on the ball and not each other. Vertonghen hit the deck and after a worrying five minutes of treatment, he was sent back on. But referee Antonio Lahoz was less keen than the Spurs bench for the centre back to continue, and moments later a groggy looking Vertonghen staggered off to be replaced by Moussa Sissoko.
Sissoko instantly added more bite and belief to his team mates, and the home side began to enjoy a modicum of control.
But with both Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen failing to really impose their quality on the proceedings, and Fernando Llorente doing his best to lead the line but showing how limited an option he really is, clear cut chances were hard to come by.
The second half saw Spurs dominate, but crosses were hit with more hope than accuracy. Shots were blocked, or not hit quick enough when the gap opened up. Without Son or Kane, there was a turgidness about the efforts.
When Ajax’s excellent David Neres went through on the break on 78 minutes, it could have been all over – but instead his effort struck Lloris’s far post.
Little moments such as these might be just the fillip Spurs need.
They head to Amsterdam next Wednesday to play a side who, for all their wonderful away performances this term, are susceptible in front of their own fans.
With Son returning from suspension, Pochettino will have more in his locker.
A one nil defeat is not a complete disaster. Spurs know they have to go to Amsterdam and win.
It will be hard. It is a big, big ask. But it isn’t beyond them.
Spurs: Lloris, Trippier (Foyth, ), Rose (Daives, ), Alderweireld, Vertonghen (Sissoko, ) Sanchez, Wanyama, Llorente, Dele, Eriksen, Moura
Subs: Gazzaniga, Dier, Walker-Peters, Skipp.