Brilliant Ajax Summoned Bullet Time to Carve Tottenham Open
But Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs side still harbour dreams of a Champions League final.
Ajax player Donny van de Beek celebrating the 0-1 during the game. Photo: Pro Shots / Alamy Stock Photo
In the end, there was surprisingly little to say. For the first time in Ajax's exhilarating run to the Champions League semi-finals and emergence into the kind of world-wide flashbulb prominence that turns fine margins into dynasties, they met a team that seemed rattled by their potential from the off. The Dutch side never really got going in the way they had done against Real Madrid and Juventus in the previous rounds. They still came away from Tottenham’s new stadium with the feeling that they’d just about kept Mauricio Pochettino’s charges at arm’s length, in a scrappy little game that seemed too in thrall to what might happen to let anything much happen at all.
Which isn’t to say that it felt that way throughout. For most of the opening 25 minutes, Ajax were imperious; first to every loose ball, outnumbering Spurs all over the pitch, victorious in almost every 50-50. In the moments around Donny van de Beek’s surreal opening goal – one for which the entire world seemed to stop and hold its breath as he went clear of the offside trap, feinted once and dummied Hugo Lloris again to sit him down on the turf before placing it into the far corner, a goal conducted in Matrix bullet-time – it seemed as though this tie might get away from Spurs entirely in the first leg.
It was a productive night for Van de Beek; a player with the face of a millionaire’s idiot son and the name of a cartoon Guy Ritchie coke dealer around whom an intriguing momentum seems to be gathering. Captain Matthijs de Ligt was once again 19, absurd and indomitable. Frenkie de Jong was, for a while, everywhere, soft-shoe shuffling hither and thither with that idiosyncratic gait of his, a prodigy who seems to have his own personal military parade music blaring on loop in his head, dancing about the pitch like a sexy little dressage horse.
For a team from the impoverished Dutch leagues to rock up to a game like this in such nerveless, bloodless style verged at times on the comical. Familiar ghosts were swirling in the air as a kind of mass proxy exorcism loomed into view. This one would be for Afonso Alves, Mateja Kežman, Siem de Jong, poor Davy Klaassen and every other post-Eredivise flop sent packing from the Premier League with a sack full of blood money and a terminal case of imposter syndrome.
That’s not what came to pass. Spurs reorganised, their timid back five shunted into the more combative outline of a 4-2-3-1 with Danny Rose joining Victor Wanyama in a screening two and Jan Vertonghen re-stationed at left-back. Almost immediately, the home team won a free kick and as Vertonghen rose with Toby Alderweireld to challenge for the high ball, he planted his nose into his former Ajax colleague’s head in a manner so vividly painful you could feel it in your teeth. Once again, a Spurs player collapsed to the turf, this time with a pint or so of blood streaming from what used to be a nose, the mixer dressing him in the colours of his old alma mater.
With commendable bravery, Vertonghen got up and tried to continue but within three minutes of rejoining the action was signalling desperately to the bench, looking as though he couldn’t decide whether to throw up or pass out as he was hauled down the tunnel with floppy dolly legs by the Tottenham medical staff. It was certifiably A Bad One, but the change of shape still served to galvanise Spurs, who suddenly, as the BT Sport commentator declared, “had found the method” to contest this duel as equals. If they had the method, now they just needed the madness.
The rebirth of Moussa Sissoko has been arguably the most compelling narrative swirling around Spurs this season, a heartening redemption tale prefaced by Daniel Levy’s reluctance to service an engine room that, shorn of Mousa Dembélé, had come to look a little too surfer dude to compete at the elite level. Enter Sissoko: a one-man chaos machine parachuted into the space where Spurs’ central midfield used to be and basically asked to FUBAR that swathe of the pitch so that the game is forced to take place in the areas where Spurs want it to: comfortably in front of their brilliant defence, in and around their deadly attack.
Sissoko, summoned at Vertonghen’s withdrawal, had what for him has become a typically strange match-saving salvo. It’s hard to think of anything tangible the Frenchman did in terms of key passes, tackles or shots but with him in their ranks the game just seemed to swing; Spurs leaving their front four high up the pitch to pin back the marauding defenders that Ajax use to supplement their free-form attacking play, putting the onus on Wanyama and the Spurs backline – the least technically gifted footballers out there – to seize the initiative. Predictably, that initiative wasn’t seized or even really gestured at for the entirety of the second half as Sissoko helped turn it into a 45-minute-long 50-50 grapple that this time Spurs, with their shape reset and Ajax’s ursine Lasse Schöne making way around the hour-mark, had more chance of winning. It’s testament to their hardwired unity and the nous of their manager that Pochettino’s men – David Neres’ 78th minute strike against the post aside – were able to regroup and effect a kind of suffocating anarchic parity.
While Son Heung-min is in line to return for the second leg, you suspect it’s Erik ten Hag who’ll wake up the happier of the two coaches on Wednesday morning, with an away goal in his back pocket and the knowledge that his team of star-bound princelings have it in them to play at levels far beyond this. They also owe their fans a home win in these knock-out stages, having lost to Real Madrid and drawn against Juventus at the Johann Cruijff ArenA thus far. For a while, this looked like a match-up between two giant-killers with no giant in sight; a pair of underdogs reluctant to cede the insurgent competitive advantages conferred upon a group of young men who all feel as though they're punching upwards. Whoever prospers from here will regain that status in the final. For now, we are left with the quick-fade memories of a bout that did little to enhance the sense of romantic destiny around either side but that still heads for Holland pregnant with promise, a game that will surely crown the neutrals’ favourites ahead of late May in Madrid.