Tottenham fans couldn’t be blamed for thinking it was a favorite to advance to the UEFA Champions League final in the minutes after their away goals rule win in a 4-4 aggregate draw with Manchester City.
Two weeks later, it’s a different story.
Fatigue and injuries have left Tottenham with a shell of a team, with just one win, scraping past Brighton and Hove Albion, and little momentum heading into a monumental matchup with an Ajax team high on confidence. Tottenham have no Harry Kane, Heung-Min Son, Harry Winks or Erik Lamela, and even Jan Vertonghen and Moussa Sissoko are injury doubts.
But that doesn’t take into account what Tottenham do have. By not making any signings, this is as tight-knit a group as the Premier League has seen in many, many years. Plus, in manager Mauricio Pochettino, there’s a unique tactician who combines great x’s and o’s with excellent man management, always getting the best out of his players in the key moments of the match.
Even without some stars and coming off a rough 1-0 loss to West Ham at home, Tottenham’s players will be confident facing Ajax, only because they are always a confident bunch. It will be a reminder of where he came from for Davinson Sanchez, who spent one successful season at Ajax, helping them to the Europa League final before heading to England, and Christian Eriksen, another Ajax alum (along with Toby Alderweireld and Vertonghen) will have a big task ahead of him with Frenkie de Jong running the show for Ajax.
Tottenham’s mission is simple, but it’s one that flummoxed Real Madrid and Juventus so far: How to neutralize Dusan Tadic up the middle and then negate de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt. Whoever of Fernando Llorente or Dele Alli will have to not only occupy de Ligt, but also pull him out of position, opening spaces for Tottenham’s wing backs to exploit on late runs.
Meanwhile, Eriksen or Alli are going to have a busy day keeping tabs on de John, trying to limit his touches, while Alderweireld and Sanchez will have to be quick to pick up Tadic when he drops into space.
Tottenham will have to do all of this on shorter rest, with a shorter bench and less recent confidence than Ajax. But maybe that’s exactly where Pochettino wants his opponents.
“It’s going to be a magical night because to play the semifinals in our new stadium is something that no one could believe or think a few months ago,” Pochettino said in his pre-match press conference Monday. “It’s a game that is impossible to be tired for, not to be excited to play. It’s all mental.
“The energy is going to be there. It’s two legs – tomorrow we are going to play the first half of the game and the second is going to be at Ajax. It’s so important how we approach the game and how we handle the game during 90 minutes.”