Advantage Ajax after first leg, but all is not lost for depleted Tottenham
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Champions League semi-final first leg: Tottenham Hotspur 0 Ajax 1
It is advantage Ajax in the semi-finals of the Champions League after they secured a deserved 1-0 win over Spurs at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium this evening.
Donny van de Beek opened the scoring with quarter of an hour gone in the capital and at this point it seemed as if the Eredivisie young guns may run riot.
Mauricio Pochettino’s patched-up team were second-best in the first half, but the enforced introduction of Moussa Sissoko saw them improve for the second period.
While it failed to produce a leveller, the Lilywhites will travel to the Netherlands with faint hope they can produce another magical night in Europe this season.
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After winning away to Borussia Dortmund and scoring three at Manchester City, they will need to produce goals in Amsterdam to get through, but they are capable.
This was uncharted territory for Spurs, who were most recently in the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1962 under legendary manager Bill Nicholson.
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It was almost definitely the biggest fixture played in N17 since 25 years ago when Tottenham won the UEFA Cup at White Hart Lane in Keith Burkinshaw’s last match in charge.
Pochettino’s squad would have to follow in the footsteps of that team if they were to head to Amsterdam next week with a positive result.
Burkinshaw’s triumphant squad from 1984 also had key men injured in the shape of Glenn Hoddle, Ray Clemence and Ossie Ardiles while taking on Hajduk Split in the last-four of the UEFA Cup.
The Lilywhites managed to come through on that occasion and despite more adversity for the final, with captain Steve Perryman suspended, they won silverware in dramatic fashion at the Lane with young goalkeeper Tony Parks the hero in a penalty shoot-out.
On that night the opposition were Anderlecht and this time Spurs were facing another club boasting a decorated history in Europe.
Ajax had won this competition four times and although this was not the star-studded side Johan Cryuff played in at the start the 70s, it was still an extraordinary team, who had knocked out Real Madrid and Juventus to make it this far.
Tottenham were unfortunately nowhere near full strength, but Sissoko was able to return from a groin injury suffered in the previous round at City, although he was only able to take up a position on the bench.
Jan Vertonghen was recalled to the starting XI though, after sitting out the 1-0 loss at home to West Ham United on Saturday due to fatigue.
It was one of four changes made by Pochettino with Heung-min Son suspended and Juan Foyth, Ben Davies and Eric Dier on the bench.
Replacing them were Kieran Trippier, Vertonghen, Victor Wanyama and Fernando Llorente with Pochettino electing to go with wing-backs against the Eredivisie team.
Spurs were missing Harry Kane, Son, Erik Lamela, Harry Winks and Serge Aurier, but in front of a partisan crowd, they had belief like they did against City.
Another picturesque tifo was produced by the fans in the South stand which read ‘To Dare, Is To Do’ and the stage was set for a memorable night of European football.
The visitors got the encounter underway with the noise deafening, but they forced the first corner of the game in the fifth minute.
It came to nothing yet Erik Ten Hag’s team continued to control possession during the opening exchanges in London, but Hugo Lloris was still to be tested.
That was to change in the 15th minute when Ajax had their first shot on target and it produced the opener in the capital.
Hakim Ziyech spread a wonderful ball out wide David Neres, and he passed inside to Lasse Schone, who found Ziyech again and he picked out van de Beek in the area.
Ajax’s number six showed the coolest of heads to wait for Lloris to commit before he slotted into the corner with superb composure.
It was a wonderful goal and if anyone in England wasn’t sure about the quality of this young team, they were now.
The Eredivisie outfit were playing like the home side and Spurs, who had four ex-Ajax players in their starting XI, looked like the novices.
Retaining possession was proving a problem for Tottenham and a prime example of this was when Wanyama lost the ball twice in the 24th minute.
It eventually saw van de Beek get in again, after Dusan Tadic’s pass, but Lloris was able to block his near-post shot with his legs.
Spurs produced their first noteworthy attack in the 26th minute and won a free kick for their troubles which created an excellent chance.
Trippier whipped in a wonderful cross and Llorente escaped his marker, yet headed wide from 12-yards after jumping too early.
It was a missed opportunity for Tottenham, but lifted their spirits and a system change also attempted to help them regain a bigger foothold in the contest.
After starting with what appeared with a 3-3-2-2 formation, the Lilywhites were now in a 4-2-3-1 with Rose alongside Wanyama in midfield and Vertonghen at left-back.
Before the tactic change could really pay dividends, a lengthy stoppage occurred after Andre Onama caught Toby Alderweireld and Vertonghen while coming for a free kick in the 31st minute.
Tottenham’s number five needed four minutes of treatment before he was able to get back to his feet and despite plenty of blood coming from his nose, he returned to the field of play to try and thwart his old club.
Referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz had a 15-second chat with the defender, but instantly after he walked onto the pitch he waved to the sidelines to call for a substitution.
The Belgian was then sick by the touchline and had to be helped off the field by Spurs staff with the effects of concussion appearing to badly impact the centre back.
Sissoko replaced the defender and Lucas Moura injected some life into the home fans with a fine run in the 42nd minute, but he was tackled and the resulting corner came to nothing.
Five minutes of stoppage time was added on at the end of the first half and it was the away supporters in fine voice as they had a precious away goal.
Yet during the extra 300 seconds, Tottenham finally put some pressure on Ajax and all of a sudden they didn’t look so invincible.
Another excellent delivery by Trippier created a chance in the fourth minute of time added on, but Alderweireld’s header from a free kick ended up on the roof of the net.
Less than 60 seconds later Sissoko fizzed a shot wide of goal from range and despite Onana not being tested, Spurs were looking a threat from set-pieces.
Referee Mateu Lahoz blew the half time whistle soon after and it brought a frustrating half for Tottenham to an end.
Nevertheless, all was not lost and with Sissoko’s energy now in the middle and Rose in his traditional left-back role, Spurs could still dream of coming back.
A strong start to the second period was required and blocked shots for Llorente and Alli raised the tempo some more.
Rose had a cross put behind for a corner in the 47th minute as Tottenham came out the traps much quicker this time.
Now attacking the South Stand, the Lilywhites looked to have moved up a gear and Onana was tested for the first time in the 50th minute, but Alli’s shot was straight at him.
The decibel levels had gone up a notch again and Llorente was beginning to show a few nice touches in and around the area.
Alli was in the thick of the action again five minutes later, but headed over following Trippier’s cross and yet his increased involvement was encouraging.
While Spurs didn’t keep hold of the ball well enough in the first half, Eriksen and Alli were peripheral figures and for Tottenham to get back in this, they had to change.
As ‘Glory, Glory Hallelujah’ rang out around the ground, Pochettino’s team sensed an opportunity to get back into the tie was coming.
Moura was starting to show his quality, as he turned away from Frenkie de Jong with ease in the 62nd minute, but no one could get on the end of his centre to the back post.
The young kids on the block were now appearing slightly rattled and Joel Veltman picked up a yellow card with 27 to go for hauling down Alli.
Spurs were unable to serious test Onana from the resulting free kick and then Ajax enjoyed some brief respite as they remembered they could play.
Both teams were looking leggy now as the final 20 minutes of the tie got underway in north London.
An opening almost presented itself for Rose with quarter of an hour left, but Veltman got back to block his effort after Eriksen’s slide pass and the Dane’s resulting corner was easily cleared.
Onana was time-wasting at every opportunity and understandably so with Ajax in a very strong position, holding a one-goal lead.
It was not an ideal result for Tottenham, but far from a disaster especially with Son and perhaps others back for the second leg.
Yet a 2-0 defeat would be a different story and the score almost went that way with 78 on the clock.
Ajax counter-attacked down the right, Tadic rolled the ball on for Neres and his shot from 10-yards flew beyond Lloris, but hit the post and Sissoko cleared the danger.
It was a massive let-off for Tottenham and one they hoped would be decisive and they made a double substitution with 10 minutes left.
Davies and Foyth replaced Rose and Trippier with the purpose to add more energy to this out on their feet team.
Alderweireld headed an Eriksen free kick onto the roof of the net again with 82 gone and another opportunity had gone begging.
With the seconds ticking away the dilemma for Spurs was do they push for a leveller and risk conceding a second or stick with a one-goal loss?
In the end, it was the second option as despite three minutes of stoppage time, they were unable to fashion one final opportunity.
Ajax, with their perfect blend of mainly youth and some experience, will fancy their chances of reaching the Champions League final, but football can be a funny old game.
Tottenham, with Son back amongst others, are capable of scoring away from home and will no doubt leave everything on the pitch next week in their efforts to reach a maiden European Cup final.
Next up for Spurs is the challenge of getting back into this competition next season as they visit AFC Bournemouth on Saturday in the Premier League knowing a victory would guarantee a top-four finish and looking to respond after back-to-back defeats.
Tottenham Hotspur: Lloris (C); Sanchez, Alderweireld, Vertonghen (Sissoko 39); Trippier (Foyth 80), Wanyama, Rose (Davies 80); Eriksen, Alli; Moura, Llorente
Unused substitutes: Gazzaniga, Walker-Peters, Dier, Skipp.
Ajax: Onana; Veltman, de Ligt, Blind, Tagliafico; van de Beek, Schone (Mazraoui 65), de Jong; Ziyech (Huntellar 87), Tadic, Neres.
Unused substitutes: Varela, Sinkgraven, Magallan, Dolberg, Wit.