Tottenham 0-1 Ajax: Talking points as visitor's liquid football hands them advantage

Alex Rea 1/05/2019
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Donny van de Beek puts Ajax in front.

Ajax will take a 1-0 lead back to Amsterdam next Wednesday after a coolly-struck Donny van de Beek goal was enough to beat hosts Tottenham in their Champions League semi-final first-leg tie.

The 22-year-old finished an incisive Ajax move as Hakim Ziyech orchestrated the goal, stretching the play with a wonderful pass out to David Neres on the left before receiving the ball again through Lasse Schone to thread through to Van de Beek.

Just onside, the young Dutchman faked to finish before stroking home one v one against Hugo Lloris to open the scoring 15 minutes in.

Tottenham did work their way back into the tie but it was the visitors who came closest to scoring again as David Neres struck the post with 12 minutes left.

AJAX RISE TO OCCASION

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The age of a team can work two ways. With experience comes the detraction of athleticism, but a refined mentality to remain settled and calm on the biggest stage.

By contrast, youth naturally gives a team physical advantages, with the obvious loss of maturity.

Yet Ajax – with their XI on Tuesday possessing an average age of 25 years and 216 days, the lowest in such context since Borussia Dortmund in 2013 – care not about inexperience because it is for this reason they are so good.

A seasoned mentality can work to jail instinct and Ajax rely on this quality to not only thrill but also function.

But it is truly a great joy to watch a team in such flow. Indeed, their refreshing liquid football should be bottled up and absorbed directly into the veins of football fans across the world.

And there was one passage of play in the first half, shortly after their superbly-worked opener which embodied this perfectly.

Van de Beek counter-pressed perfectly to rob the ball on the edge of box, he fired the ball out to the left, the pass back inside the box was then dummied by the goalscorer with the first-touch reverse pass freeing him to strike at goal.

Lloris saved well, although in truth the Dutchman should have squared to David Neres for a tap-in.

It was poised and smooth, a genuinely beautiful example of what this Ajax team can produce.

TOTTENHAM HAVE HOPE

Fernando Llorente and Dele Alli

Fernando Llorente and Dele Alli

This tie is far from over. After a chaotic opening, once Spurs settled – albeit thanks to a change in shape from 3-5-2 to 4-3-1-2 with Moussa Sissoko absolutely brilliant off the bench – they looked the better side.

The game was being lost in midfield but the switch quickly fixed the issue. Their main problem was Fernando Llorente, though.

The 34-year-old is just nowhere near dynamic enough to link-up effectively with Dele Alli and Lucas Moura. Frequently transitions would break down through his broken touches, yet with Son Heung-min – suspended on Tuesday – returning for the second leg in Amsterdam, they can hurt Ajax.

Speed, not just in tempo but of thought as well, is one way Spurs can progress.

Playing the livewire Son as a false nine will change the complexion entirely. With Sissoko fully fit as well, all is not lost for Mauricio Pochettino’s men.

And it’s not just through Son’s return there is reason for optimism. Ajax looked very susceptible from set-pieces and with better quality on their delivery, Spurs can prosper.

These are just two avenues to scoring away from home, there are sure to be more, but the issue will be holding off a team which has scored 161 goals in all competitions this season.

FOOTBALL NEEDS IMPROVED CONCUSSION PROTOCOL

Jan Vertonghen as he exits the pitch

Jan Vertonghen as he exits the pitch

The contest was full of charm but one ugly scene cannot be ignored.

Jan Vertonghen exited midway through the first half after he violently headed the back of his team-mate Toby Alderweireld’s dome when attacking a Spurs free-kick.

There was the obvious warning sign of blood cascading down his face from a grim cut on the nose, but the less pronounced vacant stare as he attempted to return having changed his crimson-stained kit following a lengthy break in play.

But of great concern was the fact referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz appeared the most responsible in ensuring Vertonghen was safe to come back on.

He did do so, but then moments later the Belgian needed to be helped off the pitch after signalling to be substituted with signs of concussion.

This incident is not in isolation. Napoli goalkeeper David Ospina collapsed during a Serie A match in March some time after a head collision with Udinese’s Ignacio Pussetto.

He should not have been allowed back onto the pitch. David Luiz was also knocked out cold against Bournemouth in January, cleared to play on when he should have been brought off.

Club doctors simply must take concussion far more seriously and perhaps the game’s rulemakers should consider a more stringent protocol.

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Donny van de Beek serves up a treat as he's one of three 8s in our Ajax ratings

Matt Jones 1/05/2019
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Donny van de Beek's stylish finish was the only goal.

Ajax have one foot in the final of the Champions League following a slender 1-0 win over Tottenham in London.

The effervescent young Amsterdam stars are aiming to emulate the youthful class of 1995 who beat AC Milan via a goal from 19-year-old Patrick Kluivert.

And it was one of their emerging stars who netted the all-important goal – Donny van de Beek adding to his burgeoning reputation with a finish of poise and precision.

An enthralling game from the off, Ajax tore into their shell-shocked opponents, who opted for an unconventional 3-5-2 formation in light of the absences of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min.

The visitors were playing more like the home team, relentlessly pressing and pinning back their hosts – and it was no surprise when they went ahead with a fine goal.

Hakim Ziyech started the move, spraying the ball wide to David Neres. When the ball was returned to the Moroccan he majestically played in Van de Beek who showed tremendous composure to slide his side ahead.

Tottenham were far more of a threat after the break but couldn’t create many clear-cut chances and it was the away side who had the clearest sight of goal with David Neres hitting the post.

This is how we rated the Dutch side:

AJAX (4-2-3-1)

Andre Onana 7: Quiet first half but was given a much tougher ride in the second. Commanded his area well and held on to everything that came his way.

Joel Veltman 7: Excellent challenge to halt Moura’s run. As Tagliafico likes to effect games going forward, he is so often solid and stoic – this was a prime example.

Matthijs de Ligt 7: So imperious in possession and commanding, you forget he’s only 19. Didn’t stand out but barely put a foot wrong either.

Daley Blind 8: Enjoying a new lease of life back at hometown club. Snapped into tackles and relished challenge of shackling Moura. Led Ajax with eight clearances.

Nicolas Tagliafico 7: Deserved yellow for scything down Eriksen. Bombed forward at every chance, flashing one effort just wide after the break.

Lasse Schone 6: Classy veteran stitched play nicely and looked to bring young team-mates into play. Ran himself into the ground.

Frenkie de Jong 7: Such a graceful player. Sat deep to spark attacks but also forayed forward. Made 36 of his 38 passes in first half alone, 65 in total was second highest.

Hakim Ziyech 8 Majestically pulled strings at No10 as Tottenham were tugged all over the place. Sparked move leading to goal with first pass pristine, second to Van de Beek was perfect.

Donny van de Beek 8: Calm finish belied his 22 years. Buzzed around the field and always looked bright. Doesn’t get hyped as much as others but a joy to watch.

David Neres 7: Tortured Trippier as Ajax exploited Spurs’ left flank ruthlessly. A menace. Could have killed the tie but mishit his shot onto the post.

Dusan Tadic 6: Quietly effective game, with team-high three key passes, as he allowed Van de Beek and Ziyech to shine. Roamed along front line with intent.

SUBS

Noussair Mazraoui 5: Brought on to replace Schone’s steel with silk, but struggled to make an impact.

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar N/A: Veteran made a cameo to provide Ajax a target as they looked to protect their lead.

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Who joins Dusan Tadic and Lucas Moura in our list of players to watch in Champions League semis?

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Daley Blind has been one of the unsung heroes of Ajax's run.

Everyone knows who the stars of the Champions League semi-finals are going to be – or at least, are supposed to be.

Lionel Messi is looking to win the tournament for the first time in five years, while Virgil van Dijk and Liverpool‘s fab three up front want to banish memories of last season’s loss in the final. Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong are looking to sign off from their Ajax careers on a high and Christian Eriksen and Son Heung-min are leading Tottenham’s quest for a first European title in 35 years.

But every side has its unsung heroes, or players who grab the headlines once in a while but aren’t always given top billing. Here’s a look at five such players to keep an eye on during the semi-finals.

DALEY BLIND

The Dutch defender has enjoyed a renaissance since returning to the club where he began his career, having left in 2014 for Manchester United. Blind rejoined last summer in a departure from Ajax’s usual transfer policy which avoids high-profile, big-money – in relative terms – signings, and it’s proven to be an inspired decision.

Now he’s reminding United what they’re missing out on as he plays in a Champions League semi-final in a season where his former club are looking like they’ll miss out on the Premier League top four.

And with fellow centre-back De Ligt set to leave the club this summer, the 29-year-old Blind has a chance to show everyone against Tottenham that there will still be a top-class defender leading this brave new Ajax into the future – which possibly includes lifting a historic Champions League trophy in a month.

DUSAN TADIC

Speaking of Ajax breaking their transfer policy to great effect – who saw this Dusan Tadic season coming? 34 goals and 19 assists from a player who never managed double digits at Southampton. The Saints are likely more looking at this season in wonder at how they never experienced such productivity rather than rueing the day they let him go.

Tottenham have seen Tadic before – the Serbian has one goal and two assists in seven previous games against Spurs – but they’ve never seen him quite like this, the standout attacking player in an all-conquering side.

And who knows, perhaps his season ends with a win over another Premier League side or even out-dueling the man who wears his number at Barcelona – a certain Messi.

GEORGINIO WIJNALDUM

Liverpool’s Dutch midfielder has gone under the radar somewhat, with headlines this season centering on the integration of Fabinho and Naby Keita or the form of Jordan Henderson.

Yet, despite scoring only three goals all season, Wijnaldum has been an effective cog in the Reds midfield. Henderson is energetic and Keita and Fabinho can control games, but no-one quite typifies Jurgen Klopp’s energetic, high-press system the way Wijnaldum does.

Though they play in very different styles and roles, it’s akin to what Sergio Busquets does for Barcelona. Wijnaldum’s energy and running from midfield make Liverpool’s system work just like Busquets’ metronomic passing and recycling of possession do for the Catalan side.

CLEMENT LENGLET

A year ago, France were lifting the World Cup. Now, a player who wasn’t in the squad has a viable claim to be the best French defender on current form, and can lead his side into the Champions League final.

Clement Lenglet has benefitted this season from the injuries to compatriot and team-mate Samuel Umtiti, as well as the slight dip in form from Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane, but there’s no doubting that the 23-year-old has improved and delivered on the promise that saw Barcelona make him a £35million signing last summer.

And he has previous against Liverpool – he was part of the Sevilla side that came back from 3-0 down to earn a draw in last season’s group stage. The semi-final could be the stage for him to provide an encore.

LUCAS MOURA

No Harry Kane. No Son for the first leg. Well, at least Tottenham can rely on a player who scored a hat-trick a little over two weeks ago.

True, Lucas Moura hasn’t scored since putting three past Huddersfield on April 13, and Ajax aren’t Huddersfield. But his goalscoring form in the time since has also been affected by playing as part of a front three rather than as the main man, which is what he’ll be in the first leg of the semi-final.

The Brazilian’s movement and tenacity make him just the sort of striker no-one wants to face, and he has an eye for goal. Could he be the one to lead Spurs into a Champions League final?

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