Champions League Preview: Ajax v. Tottenham

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With a one-goal deficit, Tottenham can take serious solace and hope from Liverpool’s incredible 4-0 win over Barcelona – anything is possible.

Heading into the second leg of Tottenham’s UEFA Champions League semifinal tie with Ajax, set to take place Wednesday (3 p.m.) at the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam, Tottenham only have to claw back from a 1-0 first leg deficit, one that seems entirely more manageable. Spurs are boosted by the return of Heung-Min Son, who, though he was sent off in the Premier League, knows this could be his last game of the season unless Tottenham advances to the final.

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In the first leg, Tottenham came out of the gates lethargic and allowed Ajax to dictate play, and it showed. The Ajax midfield, filled with smooth-passing, highly intelligent players ran Tottenham in circles, and ended up scoring the opening goal. That Tottenham only allowed one goal at the time seemed like a win, that’s how much better Ajax had been playing. Mauricio Pochettino‘s side settled into the game better and while they didn’t manage to break down Ajax, the tired, bruised and thin squad learned some key lessons about Ajax in the first leg. Namely, they can be beaten down the wings, if one can get behind Nico Tagliafico and Joel Veltman.

Ultimately, Liverpool showed that it doesn’t matter if your stars are missing – Tottenham are set to be without Harry Kane, Harry Winks and Davinson Sanchez. The mentality of the group, the never say die attitude, is the most important aspect, one that Pochettino will surely have on display from his side.

“The negative result in the first leg obviously makes it more difficult, but the tie is still open,” Pochettino told reporters on Tuesday, via UEFA.com. We know we need to win and perform our best. It’s an exciting moment for us. We need to feel more freedom to play, because we have nothing to lose. Nobody thought that we would have the chance in the last week of the season to reach the final of the Champions League. Now we need to enjoy this moment and believe.”

Ajax has been believing all season. Two years after making it to the Europa League final, this Ajax project has watched its players grow and blossom into an incredible group, one that has put both Real Madrid and Juventus to the sword as the Dutch giants were clearly the better team.

Frenkie de Jong, Donny van de Beek, and Lasse Schone in midfield, with Dusan Tadic flanked by Hakim Ziyech and David Neres up top has been one of the most clinical strike forces in all of Europe. Add to that the experience of Daley Blind and the youth talent of Matthijs de Ligt, and you have a recipe for great success.

Unlike Tottenham, which has seen its league form plummet – though it likely will retain its place in the UEFA Champions League for next season based on league position – Ajax has continued beating all who stand in its way. AJax routed Willem II, 4-0, to win the Dutch Cup, and is looking to do the treble with an Eredivisie title and the UEFA Champions League as the cherry on top of a dream year.

Of course, Ajax will have to raise their game yet again to hold off a Tottenham team with, like Pochettino said, nothing to lose.

“During the last hour [of the first leg] we did good things; the organisation of the team in defense was excellent,” Ajax coach Erik ten Hag said. “We need to do more in an attacking sense. We have to read the game and see what’s required and that’s the challenge. The away goal was important last week. We will play in an arena with an incredible atmosphere and we hope that will help us. When you play against a Premier League team, the intensity is higher. We will have to push our boundaries again.”