Champions League

Spurs collapse has broken Ajax, but it will not define them

 • by Matt Gault
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The final whistle felt like a dagger to the heart. The Ajax players, broken and beaten, collapsed to the pitch, their heads spinning, their dreams shattered.

It’s difficult not to feel sympathetic towards Ajax. Erik ten Hag’s team, like Barcelona, were the unwilling protagonists in perhaps the greatest week the Champions League has ever produced.

They were two different collapses. Barça simply didn’t show up at Anfield and were duly blown away by a spirited Liverpool. Ajax, however, holding a 1-0 lead from the first leg, thrust themselves into the driving seat against Tottenham, two further goals putting them three ahead with a quarter of the tie remaining.

The first came from the lion-hearted Matthijs de Ligt after just five minutes. Just as he had done to Juventus, the 19-year-old captain rose highest to meet Lasse Schøne’s corner.

The perfect start.

With ten minutes to go until half-time, Hakim Ziyech made it two, sweeping a beautiful shot beyond Hugo Lloris to leave Spurs with a mountain to climb.

The half-time whistle felt like music to their ears. One half down, one to go.

But Mauricio Pochettino wasn’t prepared to give in. The Argentine made what would prove to be a crucial change during the break, replacing Victor Wanyama with Fernando Llorente, giving his side a focal point in attack.

Ajax simply couldn’t cope with the Spaniard, who won a staggering 13 aerial duels in 45 minutes of football. At one point, Christian Eriksen could be seen gesticulating towards his defenders to ‘pump it long’. Spurs weren’t going to play through Ajax; they were going to play over them.

The Dutch side have treated us to a feast of sublime football over the last three months, deservedly attracting endless adulation for their fearless toppling of Real Madrid and Juventus.

And while it will take some time to recover from the manner of their departure, this Ajax team should not be defined by Lucas Moura’s ‘weak foot’ hat-trick or by the sight of a tearful Mauricio Pochettino invading the pitch to congratulate his players.

No, their legacy is much more important.

Once again, as they did under Louis van Gaal in the mid-90s, they have altered the European landscape after a remarkable feat of team-building. Even with the precocious pair of De Ligt and Frenkie de Jong, nobody expected Ajax to reach this stage.

Their Champions League journey began on July 25, a day before Spurs beat Roma in a friendly in San Diego, against Austrian outfit Sturm Graz. They had to see off Standard Liège and Dynamo Kyiv just to reach the group stage.

There, they emerged undefeated after going toe-to-toe with Bayern Munich, Benfica and AEK Athens, but nobody really took any notice of them until they were pitted against Real Madrid in the round of 16.

Champions in the last three years, and four of the last five, despite their domestic struggles Real were expected to progress. Unlucky to lose the first leg, Ajax stormed into the Spanish capital for the return leg and produced one of the great away European performances, winning 4-1, Dušan Tadić earning a rare 10/10 score from L’Équipe for his display.

Juventus were no match, De Ligt ending Cristiano Ronaldo’s hopes of a fourth successive Champions League to send Ajax into their first semi-final since 1997.

But every journey must have a conclusion and, unfortunately, theirs was particularly heartbreaking. When Lucas’s quickfire double brought it back to 2-2 on the night, the atmosphere inside the Johan Cruyff Arena changed. Buoyancy turned to tension, the chants gave way to prayers.

And when Llorente headed over the bar as the clock ticked into the 95th minute, perhaps this young Ajax side allowed themselves, just for a split-second, to believe they had made it. It proved fatal.

Spurs looked done. Son Heung-min, disappointing on the night, looked dejected. On the touchline, Pochettino threw away his chewing gum in a classic show of resignation. Seconds remained. André Onana, the Ajax keeper, was shown a yellow card for time-wasting.

It still wasn’t enough. With the five minutes of additional time nearly up, Ziyech – who had a few minutes earlier spurned a golden chance to bury the tie – lost out to Ben Davies.

From there, Spurs gave it one last go. Moussa Sissoko, again impressive, hoofed a ball into the sky. Llorente helped it on to Dele Alli, who flicked it into the path of the onrushing Lucas.

One final deadly swish of his left boot condemned the home side.

Nearly ten months on, after over 1620 minutes of football, the Ajax dream is over for another year at least.

They won’t contest in June’s showpiece in Madrid but they have contributed enormously to the most dramatic edition of the Champions League. It is Tottenham’s first final and Liverpool’s shot at redemption after falling to Real last year but Ajax felt like the story.

They were the outlier, the side from outside of Europe’s top five leagues that dared to dream. In football, it only takes a few seconds for those dreams to descend into the most hellish nightmare.

There is, of course, a sense of finality to this Ajax experiment. De Jong is leaving for Barcelona in the summer and, if reports are to be believed, De Ligt will follow. Ten Hag, his stock having sky-rocketed in 2019, is now being courted by Bayern Munich, where he worked between 2013 and 2015.

The story’s climax was excruciating but this Ajax should not be remembered as the ‘almost’ team. They are on course to reclaim the Eredivisie title from PSV Eindhoven and have already clinched the KNVB Cup. A bitter end to their European odyssey should not detract from their other accomplishments.

And even if they do not come back stronger next year, they have opened the door and shown the way for those who occupy the echelon just below Europe’s elite. Who knows, maybe in 2019/20, a Lyon or a Porto, or maybe a Napoli – coached by three-time Champions League winner Carlo Ancelotti – will break down the same barriers.

Ajax, though, have left an indelible impression. Their beautiful football lit up the Champions League. We can only thank them for that.

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