Ajax Amsterdam took a massive stride towards a first Champions League final for 23 years as Donny van de Beek’s early goal earned a 1-0 win at Tottenham Hotspur in the first leg of their semi-final on Tuesday.
Erik ten Hag’s youthful Ajax side, featuring several players polished in the Dutch club’s famed academy, were too energetic for a laboured Spurs team who hardly got a kick in the opening 25 minutes of their first European Cup semi-final for 57 years.
Such was Ajax’s domination in the early stages that they could already have virtually sealed a place in the final — but they had to be content with Van de Beek’s 15th minute goal.
Tottenham badly missed injured striker Harry Kane and the suspended Son Heung-min and managed only one shot on target.
Had David Neres’s shot not bounced back off the base of the post late on it would have been an even more calamitous night for Mauricio Pochettino’s struggling side.
As it stands they will go to Amsterdam next week with a glimmer of hope, even if only one club have ever reached the final by overturning a first-leg home loss.
“The away goal was the most important. Unfortunately Neres hit the upright. If that had gone in, it would have been even better,” Ajax’s 19-year-old skipper Matthijs de Ligt said.
“But we must be satisfied with the 1-0 score. It was a tough battle but we were fortunately very sharp tonight.”
Christian Eriksen, one of four former Ajax players in Tottenham’s team, summed up the home mood.
“We were under-par, we didn’t play our best at all. In the first 20 minutes, we were ball-watchers. We need to change it up a lot for the next game,” the Dane said.
“We’re lucky they hit the post and hopefully we can turn things around in Amsterdam.”
Ajax have already proved too good for Real Madrid and Juventus in the competition this season and were streets ahead of Spurs in the first half on a perfect night for football.
Tottenham were chasing shadows and fell behind after a quarter of an hour when Ajax sliced through the home defence with their quick-passing game.
Hakim Ziyech threaded the ball through to Van de Beek and the midfielder calmly placed his shot past keeper Hugo Lloris.
There was a suspicion of offside but unlike in Tottenham’s epic quarter-final win over Manchester City, when Raheem Sterling’s stoppage-time goal was ruled out, VAR could not save the London side this time as the Ajax fans celebrated.
Van de Beek should have made it 2-0 from Dusan Tadic’s pass as Ajax dominated and when Spurs defender Jan Vertonghen was replaced by Moussa Sissoko in the 39th minute after a clash of heads with team mate and fellow former Ajax player Toby Alderweireld, it seemed nothing was going right for the hosts.
Tottenham’s 34-year-old striker Fernando Llorente did his best to lead a blunt attack with little service, but the Spaniard headed wide from Kieran Trippier’s cross.
The introduction of midfield powerhouse Sissoko injected some much-needed energy into a flagging Tottenham side and he fizzed a shot wide from Llorente’s knockdown before halftime.
Spurs enjoyed their best spell early in the second period as they switched to a more direct approach and Dele Alli had a couple of half chances.
But Ajax showed they can defend as well as attack and rarely looked stretched as the hosts huffed and puffed in search of an equaliser.
Tottenham were vulnerable to the counter, however, and Ajax came close to doubling the lead, and leaving Spurs with a near-impossible task in the second leg, after 78 minutes when Tadic linked up with Neres whose side-footed shot struck the post.
Ajax coach Ten Hag praises his lions
Ajax Amsterdam coach Erik ten Hag praised his young lions after the Dutch club moved within touching distance of the Champions League final.
“A fantastic achievement. We fought like lions,” Ten Hag said. “We are halfway there and in good shape. The willpower was very nice to see.”
Had David Neres not been denied by the post late on Ajax’s position would look impregnable, but Ten Hag knows the job is not yet completed.
“I think it’s an excellent result for us. We won the game. We are satisfied. We have a very good starting point, but we’re only halfway through,” he told reporters.
“We can play football in different styles. We can defend very well. We have a team that works together really well; they can fight together really well.”
The 22-year-old Van de Beek said he still expected a tough battle next week in the Johan Cruyff stadium.
“The first 30 minutes were good but we found it tough after that. They changed things up and we had difficulty dealing with that,” he said. “The second half was really a battle.
“It will be a tough game next week in the Arena, but with our own supporters behind us it will certainly be a huge boost to reach the final.
“We have to develop a good tactical plan so we can play like we did in the first 30 minutes this evening.”
Pochettino’s dream turns sour as Spurs misfire
Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino said he was living the dream in the build-up to their Champions League semi-final against Ajax Amsterdam but it must have felt like a nightmare at times against the classy Dutch side on Tuesday.
His patched-up team were comprehensively outplayed in the first 30 minutes and were fortunate to only concede a 15th minute goal that was coolly converted by Donny van de Beek to give the visitors a 1-0 win and a precious away strike.
With forwards Harry Kane and Son Heung-min unavailable through injury and suspension respectively, Spurs were blunt in attack and they also lacked creativity in midfield as they slumped to their 18th defeat of the season in all competitions.
To make matters worse Jan Vertonghen, one of three centre backs employed by Pochettino, had to be substituted in the first half after a sickening collision with team mate Toby Alderweireld left him with concussion and a bloody nose.
“The attitude was there but we didn’t find a way to play,” said Pochettino, who has led Tottenham to their first semi-final in Europe’s blue-riband club competition for 57 years.
“We didn’t show the energy that we wanted to show. They showed more energy than us. The way we conceded the goal was painful. They were more proactive than us.
“Our approach to the game was not good. I am the manager so I have responsibility.”
Despite an improved second-half display, Spurs managed only one effort on target as they lost at their new stadium for the second time in four days and there is a suspicion that they are running on empty at the end of a demanding season.
Spurs will travel to Amsterdam where they will bid to become only the second side to reach the final having lost the first leg at home — after Ajax managed the feat in 1996.
Pochettino, however, remains hopeful that his side can turn things around next week when his prolific South Korean striker Son will be available again after his suspension.
“We pushed them to play deeper (in the second half). We started to press in the way we wanted to press. The second half has given us the hope for the second leg,” he said.
The Argentine coach was also asked to clarify the situation with former Ajax defender Vertonghen, who needed lengthy treatment to stem the bleeding from a gash on his nose before it appeared he was ready to go back on and continue playing.
The clearly-groggy Belgian international was then helped off the field as it became clear he could not continue.
“I wasn’t involved. It was the doctor’s decision. It is so important,” Pochettino said. “The rules and the protocol were there and the medical staff followed them.
“In the next action we had to take him out. The most important thing is the health of the player. I am never going to be involved. I only need to listen and hear what they say and take a decision. I will never debate their decision.”