Ajax‘s magical Champions League run came to an end in heartbreaking fashion on Wednesday, as a 95th-minute winner from Tottenham‘s Lucas Moura stunned the Dutch side in the second leg of the semi-final – which Ajax had at one point led 2-0.
That fast start had put the Eredivisie leaders three goals up on aggregate, but that lead was wiped out in the second half as Erik ten Hag’s side succumbed to Tottenham’s relentless pressure.
Here’s a closer look at how it all went wrong for Ten Hag and Ajax.
Goals – 2
Shots – 16
Shots on target – 4
Possession – 40%
Passing accuracy – 73%
Chances created – 16
Ten Hag was forced into making a late change to his starting XI as winger David Neres pulled up in the pre-match warm-up, with the manager choosing to insert striker Kasper Dolberg into the line-up instead.
Though that meant a reshuffle as Dusan Tadic was moved out to the left wing from his usual false nine position, it didn’t seem to cost Ajax much as they raced out to a 2-0 lead. But it all came crashing down in the second half as they lost their rhythm and attacking verve.
TACTICAL TALKING POINT
Stick or twist indecision costs Ten Hag and Ajax
As Spurs took control of the game in the second half, Ten Hag faced a difficult choice: abandon the attacking mentality that had gotten his side this far, or keep playing to his team’s strengths?
He ended up not doing either. Right-back Joel Veltman came on for midfielder Lasse Schone, with starting right-back Noussair Mazraoui moving into midfield, the position he played before this season, while midfielder Daley Sinkgraven came on for the lacklustre Dolberg.
But the substitutions signalled a retreat from Ajax – and the Spurs pressure eventually told.
"As a coach, there are matches where we don't play, there are matches where we play very bad but there are matches where we play very well and Ajax in the 2nd half needed him to play very well and he played like his team:not very well."— beIN SPORTS (@beINSPORTS) May 8, 2019
Mourinho on Erik ten Hag😳#beINMourinho pic.twitter.com/Ntwj0I1Wk5
This result is so heartbreakingly harsh on Ten Hag and his side. They were seconds away from a thoroughly deserved Champions League final appearance, after they knocked out Real Madrid and Juventus to get here.
Ten Hag may perhaps rue his team’s inexperience. No one in the Ajax side knew how to calm the game down when Tottenham were building up a head of steam – though all the experience in the world didn’t help Barcelona in a similar situation on Tuesday. In the end, his own second-half tactics probably cost Ajax.
RATING – 6/10
The drama of the Champions League got even better on Wednesday as Tottenham stunned Ajax with a second-half comeback to reach the final, with Lucas Moura capping off a hat-trick with a 96th-minute winner.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side looked down and out after falling behind 2-0 in the first half, but for the second straight night an English team needing three goals in the second half to advance to the final achieved the feat.
Here’s a look at how Pochettino pulled it off.
Goals – 3
Shots – 24
Shots on target – 7
Possession – 60%
Passing Accuracy – 80%
Chances created – 19
With Son Heung-min returning, Pochettino fielded an attacking lineup, with Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, Moura, and the Korean all in the XI. It was the exact same XI that survived the second leg of the quarter-final against Manchester City.
Yet Spurs looked lost at sea in the first half as Ajax were playing them off the park on the way to a two-goal lead. Pochettino intervened at half-time, and Spurs turned the game on its head, before winning in dramatic circumstances.
TACTICAL TALKING POINT
In-game substitutions do the trick
Pochettino was perhaps forced into one substitution, with Victor Wanyama picking up an injury in the first half, but choosing to bring on Fernando Llorente instead of, say, Eric Dier was an attacking decision that reaped rewards.
But his boldness didn’t end there. Spurs played the final 15 minutes or so with Eriksen as the lone midfielder, with Moussa Sissoko moving over to right-back after Kieran Trippier was taken off for forward Erik Lamela. The decision to go all-out for the win worked perfectly.
"Thank you football. Thank you my players, they are heroes."— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) May 8, 2019
"Without football it is impossible to live."
No, thank you 🙏
Mauricio Pochettino cries during his post-match interview with @DesKellyBTS.
This means everything to him... pic.twitter.com/ArpQwwnwDH
What a run it’s been for Tottenham. On matchday four of the group stage, they were trailing 1-0 at home to PSV Eindhoven and crashing out of the Champions League. They turned it around, beat Inter Milan, got a draw against Barcelona – thanks to a late goal from Moura – outclassed Borussia Dortmund, had that madcap quarter-final against Manchester City, and now this.
Pochettino has been working wonders with this team – they’ve made no transfers this season, remember – but this was his finest moment yet.
RATING – 9/10
And, breathe. The Champions League clearly spares no thought for the millions of palpitations their product provokes across the globe. For football fans, the last couple of nights have taken their toll. But would you have it any other way?
Wednesday night’s action ended with Mauricio Pochettino in tears but those water works were precipitated by an overwhelming emotion as his Tottenham side pulled off an incredible second-half comeback to beat Ajax 2-3 in Amsterdam – levelling the tie 3-3 on aggregate – and advance to the final in Madrid on away goals, where Liverpool await.
So many stars shone bright on the night but none more so than Lucas Moura whose fairytale hat-trick stole the show and the dream final appearance Ajax had seemed destined for at half-time, or even as early as the fifth minute when some slack defending allowed Matthijs de Ligt to head home from a corner.
Several flowing Ajax moves later, Hakim Ziyech applied the finishing touch to Dusan Tadic’s pass, steering the ball past Hugo Lloris and inside the far post with 35 minutes played.
Moura’s quickfire brace early in the second half – in the 55th and 59th minutes – meant the tie was suddenly finely poised. The encounter descended into beautiful mayhem as both sides exchanged blows as full-time approached, but Moura was able to land the decisive one in the fifth minute of stoppage time, flooring Spurs’ worthy opponents.
SPURS START SLOW, THEN GROW
Tottenham did themselves no favours by beginning the second leg much like they did the first, not with respect to their formation – Pochettino certainly learned his lesson in that regard. This time, there was no three-man defence in place but the mentality was a familiar and fundamental stumbling block.
Conceding the early goal aside, it was their tedious build-up play which disappointed, especially after the problems they caused Ajax in the closing stages during the encounter in north London after deciding to adopt a more direct approach.
Instead, their efforts to play out from the back against Ajax’s aggressive high-press did them more harm than good. The hosts were able to create enticing opportunities for themselves in the many transitions they were afforded while rarely being stretched in keeping Spurs at bay.
Pochettino switched strategies at half-time with Fernando Llorente, a focal point in attack, introduced for the holding midfielder Victor Wanyama. The impact was indisputable and immediate.
The visitors stopped trying to pass their way out and beat Ajax at their own game. With the big Spanish striker capable of holding up play and taking focus away from the forward runners around him, Spurs were able to play quick, vertical passes and put Ajax under pressure.
That pressure was sustainable due to the fact that Llorente’s aerial threat meant they had the option to launch balls into the box when more attractive avenues to goal were not forthcoming. It made for a pulsating second half and an exhilarating finish.
NOT JUST A DE LIGT TO WATCH
Five minutes in and De Ligt was on the spot to power home his header and potentially grab headlines yet again. He’s just one of the many outstanding talents in this Ajax side who live to thrill, but it’s not just their delightful brand of football that draws admiration.
Yes, their slick passing and movement creates pretty triangles all over the pitch but that’s only half of what makes them such a formidable force. It’s the other half that Spurs had just as much difficulty coping with.
The kind of intense press that the Dutch side exerts comes from vast energy reserves and a singular desire across the team. The determination to work for each other is incredible and will continue to hold them in good stead.
There was also an air of confidence that seems strange for such a young and inexperienced side, yet is worn so naturally by Ajax. They were fearless going into the encounter, composed in their approach and, on occasion, audacious in their efforts.
Even when Spurs threw caution to the wind and delivered a fierce second-half display, the hosts weren’t completely overrun. For a side brimming with players whose careers are still in their infancy, adopting a fetal position after a quick and painful double jab from Moura over four minutes would’ve been understandable.
But they showed they can take a punch and then throw a few of their own. Ziyech probably had the best of the chances they continued to create, skewing Tadic’s ball agonisingly wide before striking the upright with a low drilled effort.
A lethal final blow from Moura cost them what was a well-contested bout, but they showed immense character and, unlike Barcelona on the previous night, went down swinging.