Champions League: Advantage Ajax as Dutch side earn narrow win over Tottenham in semifinals

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Donny van de Beek’s first-half goal was all that separated the two sides in a tight and sometimes scrappy affair.

Ajax could have put the match — and arguably even the tie — to bed in the second period but young Brazilian David Neres saw his shot hit the post after a scintillating Ajax counterattack.

Prior to kick-off, given the vast riches and all-star squads boasted by many Champions League teams, it seemed scarcely believable that either of these two sides would be competing to reach the final in Madrid on June 1.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, despite the two teams’ inexperience at this stage of European competition, there were no nerves in the cool north London air, only palpable excitement.

Fans were already arriving in their droves more than three hours before kick off, keen to savor every second of a European occasion not seen at either club for a generation.

Donny van de Beek celebrates his winning goal for Ajax.

Despite Pochettino suffering an absentee list as long as his arm, including the injured Harry Kane and suspended Heung Son-min, his players were showing no sign of nerves either, dominating the opening exchanges.

But this youthful Ajax side, by far the youngest remaining in the competition, has defied all odds to be here, belying its inexperience to reach this stage of the Champions League for the first time since 1996, eliminating Real Madrid and Juventus along the way.

Five of tonight’s team were not yet born the last time Ajax made it this far, but inside 15 minutes the Dutch side was looking to add Spurs and its shiny new stadium to its already-impressive list of scalps.

Having ridden an early wave of Tottenham pressure, Van de Beek sprung the offside trap thanks to some questionable marking, receiving the ball from Ajax creator-in-chief Hakim Ziyech and slotting it past Hugo Lloris.

The goal helped provide a platform for Ajax to dominate the first half, rarely allowing Tottenham possession outside its own half.

While the visitors continued to look dangerous, first getting in behind with Neres and then Dusan Tadic, Spurs had only a Fernando Llorente header to show for its first-half efforts.

Thanks to Ajax’s incessant pressing and fluidity in attack, the home supporters’ early excitement soon turned to anger and frustration.

The noise of 60,000 fans groaning simultaneously met the players every time they lost possession, all the while becoming increasingly irate with the decisions made by exuberant Spanish referee Mateu Lahoz.

Tottenham's Jan Vertonghen was forced off with injury midway through the first half.

Tottenham was then dealt another sizable blow midway through the first half, losing defender Jan Vertonghen — one of four former Ajax players in this Spurs starting XI — to injury following a nasty collision with goalkeeper Andre Onana.

On to replace the Belgian was Moussa Sissoko, surely only half-fit after being rushed back from an injury sustained in the quarterfinal second leg against Manchester City.

As the clock ticked towards half time, Tottenham finally began to stamp its authority on the midfield — thanks largely to the recently introduced Sissoko — and Toby Alderweireld, another former Ajax boy, saw his header float agonizingly over the crossbar.

The closest Spurs came to an equalizer was Sissoko’s rasping, long-range drive and all credit for keeping the home side at bay went to an Ajax defense marshaled by Matthijs de Ligt who, at 19 years and 261 days, is the youngest player to captain a team in a Champions League semifinal.

Though the home side did have the better of the second half, it struggled to muster any real chances of note and only Dele Alli’s awkward, bouncing shot truly tested Onana.

Ajax players celebrate victory in front of their fans.

Despite Neres seeing his late strike hit the inside of the post and bounce away from goal, Ajax coach Erik ten Hag will no doubt be thrilled with yet another assured away European victory from his youthful side.

While many of these young stars will inevitably be prized away from the club in the summer — midfielder Frenkie de Jong has already been snapped up by Barcelona — winning European football’s greatest prize would provide the ultimate parting gift.

Following the final whistle, Ajax’s players went over to the far corner of the stadium to join their fans in celebration, many of them shirtless but too delirious to care about the now bitter night.

They know they are close. Only once before has a team come back from losing the first leg of a Champions League semifinal to qualify for the final, as Tottenham must do.

That team? Ajax in 1996.

Now, 90 minutes are all that lie between this young side and a place in the Champions League final.



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