Ninety minutes from their first Champions League finals appearance in 23 years, Ajax attempt to complete an unlikely run to Madrid as they attempt to see their slender lead through at home Wednesday against Tottenham Hotspur.
De Godenzonen rode a 15th-minute goal by Danny van de Beek — capping a magnificent orchestration of ball movement — and a well-marshaled defence to a 1-0 victory at White Hart Lane on April 30. While Ajax did allow Tottenham to take 13 shots, only one of them was on target, and keeper Andre Onana was a commanding presence in his box, snuffing out danger via crosses sent in from the flanks.
“It was really nice to score but it was also an important moment for the team,” van de Beek said post-match after scoring his fourth Champions League goal of the term. “I think in the first 30 minutes we played really good and then Tottenham tactically changed something and we had problems with that.
“We have to watch the game back and see what we can do better.”
Ajax may have found those things they can do better after winning the KNVB Cup for the first time since 2010 and 19th time overall Sunday, outclassing Willem II 4-0. Daley Blind headed de Godenzonen into the lead on 38 minutes, and Klaas Huntelaar made it 2-0 a minute later.
The veteran striker completed his brace in the 67th minute before Rasmus Kristensen capped the scoring nine minutes later. The victory completed Ajax’s first leg of a potential treble as they lead PSV Eindhoven on goal difference with two Eredivisie matches remaining. Ajax’s victory Sunday also ensured they will face PSV for the Johan Cruyff Shield on July 28.
The win also may have served as a pressure release for Ajax, who have dealt with the heavy expectations that come with being perennial favourites in the Netherlands while trying to wrap up their first league title in five years. Midfielder Frenkie De Jong’s matches are down to a precious few before he leaves for Barcelona — likely opponents in the final for whoever advances Wednesday — and getting at least one trophy before departing was important to the soon-to-be 22-year-old.
“We were somewhat inclined to the final”, De Jong told De Telegraaf. “The entire season is already busy. You can hear everyone say it. Nice football but no prize. Now we want more…”
“It’s about titles. The first prize is winning, but we are not satisfied yet,” Ajax boss Erik ten Hag added. “This is fantastic for the fans too. We have been dry for a number of years. This fuels hunger. The players are so incredibly eager. ”
Ajax have won six on the bounce in all competitions and unbeaten in 10 (9-1-0) since a 1-0 defeat at AZ Alkmaar on March 17. That stands as de Godenzonen’s lone defeat in 17 matches overall (15-1-1).
The challenge for the newly minted KNVB Cup winners is to maintain their one-goal advantage and reach the Champions League final for the first time since 1996. The four-time European winners are playing the second leg at home for the first time in the knockout rounds, having overturned a 2-1 deficit at the Bernabeu in the round of 16 versus Real Madrid and edging Juventus in Turin after 1-1 draw.
While history is on the side of the Dutch, they also proved to be the exception to the rule when it comes to protecting a lead at home in the second leg. That 1996 Ajax side shook off a 1-0 loss to Panathinakos to win 3-0 in Greece and advance to their most recent final, and they are the only club in 17 instances of a home team losing a first-leg Champions League semifinal who were able to recover and advance to the final.
It would appear ten Hag could keep the same XI from the first leg, with perhaps the only spot in doubt being right back — Joel Veltman made way for Noussair Mazraoui in Sunday’s cup final, and Mazraoui came off the bench in the first leg on 65 minutes. The Ajax boss made only three changes from the first-leg win for Sunday as winger David Neres and midfielder Lasse Schoene came off the bench.
Between their poor recent road form and injury-ravaged roster, it appears Spurs are making this trip to Amsterdam on a near-empty tank. The north London side have lost three on the spin and five of their last six in all competitions after a 1-0 defeat at Bournemouth on Saturday.
Despite their recent slide, the Lilywhites are still in very favourable position to claim a top-four spot and return to Champions League next season. Eternal rivals Arsenal need an eight-goal swing to pip Tottenham during Sunday’s final match day to claim fourth in the Premier League table.
Saturday’s defeat at Dean Court was Tottenham’s fifth consecutive road loss and ninth in 10 matches (1-0-9) overall. They have shipped two or more goals in seven of those contests, and their frenetic 4-3 second-leg quarterfinal loss to Manchester City that saw them scrape into this round on away goals marked the only contest in that span they scored more than one goal in a match.
Spurs did themselves no favours Saturday as both Heung-Min Son and Juan Foyth were sent off four minutes apart around halftime. Son, who missed the first leg due to yellow card accumulation, lashed out at Jefferson Lerma after a foul and got his marching orders from Craig Pawson. Foyth joined him in the locker room right after the restart for a reckless challenge on Jack Simpson.
Even down two men, Spurs were on the verge of scraping out a point until Nathan Ake’s stoppage-time header sent them back north to London with nothing to show for their efforts.
“We have ahead two finals against Ajax and Everton and it’s in our hands to be in a good position at the end of the season,” Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino told the club’s official website, adding Saturday’s loss was “cruel, but we have to accept it.
“No-one believed we’d be in this position in the last week of the competition. We are in a position where it depends on us to be in the (Champions League) final or not and then it depends on us to finish in the top four. It’s a massive week and that’s why we need to move on, try to recover as soon as possible and be ready again but whatever happens I am going to feel proud.”
Son’s return gives Pochettino a legitimate goal-scoring threat up front it lacked at White Hart Lane without injured talisman Harry Kane. The South Korea international’s four Champions League goals are second only to Kane (5), and 12 of his 20 goals have come since Kane suffered his ankle injury. It also allows Pochettino to properly line up his preferred 4-2-3-1 with Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, and Lucas Moura underneath Son.
There is one large injury concern in defender Jan Vertonghen, though Pochettino said he expects the centre back to be able to play after practicing with the team Monday. The Belgium international suffered a concussion in the first half following a collision with teammate and compatriot Toby Alderweireld and was forced off after initially looking OK.
Vertonghen was held out of Saturday’s loss to Bournemouth, but with the possibility of Davinson Sanchez possibly being out for this match through injury, Vertonghen’s return may be vital for any hope Tottenham have to overturn this deficit without conceding. Midfielder Erik Lamela is expected to be available, giving Pochettino at least one more creative playmaker on the bench.
Vertonghen’s return would allow Moussa Sissoko to partner in defensive midfield with Victor Wanyama in front of an expected back four. Pochettino tried using a three-man back last week at White Hart Lane, only for Ajax to run riot early. That switch to a back four was what van de Beek was referring to when he said “Tottenham tactically changed something.”
Tottenham are trying to reach their first European Cup final, having been denied at this stage by Benfica in 1962. This is their second trip to the Netherlands, having drawn PSV Eindhoven 2-2 in a wild affair in group play in which Moura and Kane scored on either side of halftime to erase a deficit before Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris got a direct red card in the 79th minute for plowing through Hirving Lozano.
The 10-man Spurs could not hold out for the win as PSV equalised three minutes from time. They then beat PSV 2-1 a fortnight later to start their stunning escape from the group.
All told, the Lilywhites have won just five of their last 20 away matches in European competitions (5-7-8). Tottenham are 5-2-2 all-time in the Netherlands but also lost all three European ties in which they lost the first leg at home.
Germany’s Felix Brych will be the referee for this match. It will be the first time he oversees a Tottenham contest this season, and he was in charge of Ajax’s second-leg win over Real Madrid. That included a critical VAR review that allowed the Dutch side’s third goal to stand in their famous round of 16 triumph.
The winner of this match will play the winner of the semifinal tie between Barcelona and Liverpool, which Barcelona leads 3-0 heading into Tuesday’s second leg at Liverpool. The Champions League final will be held at Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in Madrid on June 1.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Ajax 1, Tottenham Hotspur 1 (Ajax advances 2-1 on aggregate).
(Donny van de Beek/Team celebratory photos courtesy AFC Ajax official Twitter account)
(Heung-Min Son photo courtesy Tottenham Hotspur official Twitter account)