Ajax are favourites to reach the Uefa Champions League final after defeating Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 away in the first leg of their semi-final on Tuesday. We look at reasons Spurs can turn around the tie, though, when the two meet again next week.
Ajax actually better on the road
The stat is pretty definitive, the history damning. Only one of the 17 previous teams to lose the first leg at home in a European Cup semi-final have progressed to the final. Ironically, that was Ajax, back in 1996. Yet Spurs can seek some solace in the fact they departed the initial encounter only 1-0 down, following a largely disappointing display at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. It does, though, mean the tie is far from irretrievable. To that point, Ajax haven’t been as dominant at home in the knockout stages as they have been on the road, drawing 1-1 with Juventus and losing 2-1 to Real Madrid. A similar scoreline at the Johann Cruyff Arena next week would be enough for Spurs to progress. Crucially, they should have Son Heung-min back, while Moussa Sissoko’s influence and energy was evident on Tuesday following his first-half introduction. As the stat suggests, it’s a big ask. But Spurs have hope.
Return of Son timely
Given injuries and suspensions, Mauricio Pochettino's hand was forced somewhat for the first leg. Fernando Llorente began up front, with Lucas Moura often his closest colleague. Spurs could not even name a specialist attacker on the bench. Both forwards did OK, although Llorente's limitations are clear: the ageing Spaniard does not possess the tools to stretch Ajax, while his hold-up play was not effective enough. Son's return, therefore, will be very much welcome. Suspended on Tuesday, the South Korean has been Spurs' best offensive player this season, portrayed by his three goals across two legs in the quarter-final against Manchester City. For large spells, he has excelled during Harry Kane's absence. Paired with Moura next week, they will give Ajax's back-line wholly different problems. Spurs had one shot on target in the first leg. With sharp-shooter Son back in the side, they carry significantly more of a threat.
With Moussa in the middle, Dele and Eriksen can thrive
The first 30 minutes on Tuesday provided Spurs a chastening experience. Pochettino began with five at the back, but the hosts' midfield was quickly overrun by the intelligence and interplay of Ajax. Predictably, Frenkie de Jong dictated from deep, while Donny van de Beek and Hakim Ziyech had the freedom to cause havoc ahead. The duo combined for the goal. However, Jan Vertonghen's worrying injury led to a tactical rethink by Pochettino, with Spurs switching to a back four. Sissoko's introduction was key. With the previously injured Frenchman, Spurs were more aggressive and, in the second half, pressed back Ajax. In theory, his presence in the centre of midfield, and perhaps Eric Dier replacing the woefully out-of-form Victor Wanyama, can free up Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen to forage further forward. Alli, in particular, was poor in the first leg, while Eriksen struggled to create. A seriously improved display all-round is required.
Pressure now on Ajax to progress
Ajax have been the standout in this season's Champions League. Eric ten Hag's youthful side twice held Bayern Munich in the group stages, then in the knockouts dispatched three-time defending champions Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo's Juventus. More impressively, they have done so playing with a confidence and a calmness that belies their relative inexperience. Against Spurs, the average age of the side was 25 years and 216 days. Matthijs de Ligt, their captain, is only 19, but contributed another masterful performance. Yet, with a 1-0 victory and the upper hand, expectation now is for Ajax to progress to a first European Cup final in 24 years. Considering the score, and Spurs' current funk - they have lost their past three matches - they go into the second leg as heavy favourites. That could play into Spurs' hands. The London club proved against City they possess the fortitude and firepower for an upset.