An undermanned and exhausted Tottenham has ample excuses, but Ajax enforced its will in the opening half hour in London, taking a 1-0 win to move to the cusp of its first Champions League final since 1996.
Advantage Ajax. Tottenham will regret that when it finally reached a major European semifinal for the first time in 57 years it had to put out such a patched-up team, but that shouldn’t detract from the magnitude of Ajax’s achievement, a 1-0 win in the first leg of the sides' Champions League semifinal at Spurs' new stadium. Ajax won its third straight away game in the knockout stage of the Champions League–following impressive results at Real Madrid and Juventus–and will reach a first final in 23 years if it avoids defeat in the second leg next Wednesday.
The game was won in the opening half hour. Not for the first time on a major stage, Tottenham was undone by a protracted spell in which it simply did not perform. As Ajax, slick as it has been all year, surged past it again and again, it seemed possible the series could be done by halftime. Ajax’s opener had felt inevitable for much of the first quarter hour. In the end, it could hardly have been simpler, three quick passes culminating in Hakim Ziyech pinging a first-time pass through for Donny van de Beek, who had so much time he could dummy a shot before casually placing the ball past Hugo Lloris.
With Harry Kane injured, Son Heung-min suspended and Eric Dier and Moussa Sissoko starting on the bench as they came back from injury, Spurs began with an unfamiliar shape and an unfamiliar lineup. The back three Mauricio Pochettino adopted was almost dictated to him by who was available, but Tottenham’s mutual unfamiliarity, the tentativeness of its play, was in obvious contrast to the fluency and interplay of Ajax.
Kieran Tripper was repeatedly exposed by the combination of David Neres and Nicolas Tagliafico on the Tottenham right, while Victor Wanyama was a lonely figure at the back of midfield, unable to handle Ajax’s unpredictable runs from deep. Pochettino had just adjusted the shape, moving Danny Rose into midfield, when he lost another player, as Jan Vertonghen was forced off after a clash of heads with his central defensive partner Toby Alderweireld.
Although the bleeding from his nose had been stopped, Vertonghen’s shaky response after attempting to play on once again raised questions about football’s protocols with regard to concussion. Given he ultimately had to be helped down the tunnel by two medical staffers as his legs gave way, it seemed bizarre that he had ever been cleared to return to the field.
Vertonghen’s departure brought Sissoko into the game, and a combination of his energy and aggression and the change of shape altered the dynamic of the game. Although Ajax maintained a threat on the break and hit the post through Neres with 12 minutes to go, Tottenham in the second half was able to apply the sort of pressure that nether Real Madrid nor Juventus had in the previous two rounds. The problem was that a mix-and-match front three wasn’t able to take advantage. Fernando Llorente remains a strangely inconsistent figure, at times seemingly unplayable with his power and touch, and at other times weirdly hopeless, missing simple passes and wasting decent shooting opportunities, often in the same passage of play.
Lucas Moura, who has played an important role in recent weeks, struggled to impose himself on the right, and although Tottenham did drive Ajax back in the first half of the second half in a way that will give it some hope heading into the second leg, there was never a sense that Tottenham had the quality in the final third to take advantage. But that perhaps, again, was a facet of the presence of Llorente. It’s not that he can’t be an effective player; it’s more that Tottenham is not set up to play to a target man. Llorente’s role since his arrival from Swansea has been largely as a substitute or to play alongside Kane as a different option. The crossing here simply wasn’t good enough to make the most of his assets.
Nor was there much in the way of creativity on the bench for Spurs. They had looked weary in losing to West Ham on Saturday and that perhaps explained why, when Pochettino made his final two changes with 10 minutes to go, it was simply to swap his fullbacks, the position in a Pochettino system that does the most running. Adding extra flair or cutting edge simply wasn’t an option.
The return of Son changes the picture a little, and the second half showed the Ajax flow can be stopped, but Ajax also deserves credit for the way it defended. This was a thoroughly deserved victory.