Tottenham face tall order to reach Champions League final but stranger revivals have happened
Trailing 1-0 from the first leg and in poor away form, and with a tired squad depleted by injuries, Spurs need to find a way past Ajax
There are cooler ways to prepare for perhaps the most portentous fixture in your club’s history than the show Tottenham Hotspur put on at the weekend.
A sixth away defeat in succession in the Premier League hardly boosts the conviction they can travel into Europe and steal a win, as they must at Ajax on Wednesday night, to reach a first Uefa Champions League final.
Nor do the two red cards they contrived to pick up either side of half-time in the 1-0 setback at Bournemouth testify to composure, a prerequisite given the delicate balance of a tie poised at 1-0 in favour of the bold Amsterdammers.
As for fatigue, Spurs are carrying every symptom of it. Their captain and totem, Harry Kane, is injured, their senior defender, Jan Vertonghen, is in tentative recovery from a head injury and nobody was helped by a Saturday spent having to play 45 minutes heavily outnumbered in what had turned into a fevered struggle to finish in the top four of the Premier League.
As it happens, Spurs have been done a favour, their rivals for fourth place in the English hierarchy, Arsenal and Manchester United, dropping points, and all but ensuring Tottenham will play Champions League football again in September.
But as Mauricio Pochettino gratefully received that news on Sunday, he was also assessing evidence that, in the Netherlands, his next opponents are displaying all the calm efficiency Tottenham have conspicuously mislaid.
Ajax won the Dutch Cup at the weekend, and, with the first two goals of their unanswered four scored by the 40th minute against Willem II, their head coach Erik Ten Hag could turn his mind to the European semi-final.
Hatem Ziyech, the livewire attacking midfielder, was withdrawn before the hour, having set up the second goal; Dusan Tadic, Ajax’s leading scorer, watched the last 17 minutes with his feet up, on the bench.
All good for Ajax morale, and a vivid contrast to Spurs, where Son Heung-Min, a portrait of endeavour and responsibility for most of the season, lost his temper, sent off for raising his arm at Bournemouth’s Jefferson Lerma.
After barely three minutes on the pitch, half-time substitute Juan Foyth was then dismissed for a studs-up challenge, leaving his Tottenham teammates with almost a full half to chase a match of nine men against 11.
Granted, Foyth is only 21, an age that forgives rash moments in a centre-half. Or it does until you measure them by the standards of Matthijs De Ligt, who marshalls Ajax’s defence, captains them and will deliver the dressing-room battle cry that reminds his young team they have eliminated Real Madrid and Juventus to get within 90 minutes of the club’s first European Cup final for 23 years.
De Ligt is 19. But he has been here before. He can remind colleagues like Ziyech, goalkeeper Andre Onana, and playmaker Donny van de Beek that they know only too well a semi-final lead can be a fragile thing.
Best pictures from Tottenham v Ajax first leg
Two seasons ago, they and De Ligt were playing for the Ajax who led Olympique Lyonnais 5-1 on aggregate with just over an hour of their Europa League semi-final tie left. They ended up scraping to victory by a single goal.
Might a threadbare Tottenham reverse a more modest disadvantage? Stranger revivals have been known. The absence of Kane is a setback, but unlike in the first leg, Son is available to supply, if he keeps his cool, the sort of pace and precision that make the Korean Spurs’ most potent striker other than the skipper.
It will still be a weakened Spurs. Vertonghen’s possible return is weighed against a fitness doubt over Davinson Sanchez; Erik Lamela, out with hamstring problems since March, may be ready for some participation, but Harry Winks is not. England internationals Eric Dier, Kieran Trippier and Dele Alli, World Cup semi-finalists last July, are struggling for form.
But history is full of mix-and-match sides finding an extra gear with the motive of club football’s greatest prize. Take the Barcelona team of a decade ago, now celebrated as the standard-bearers of the modern European Cup.
They won the 2009 Champions League having reached the final only thanks to a 93rd minute equaliser at the end of a semi-final in which they never held a lead; they were without their captain, Carles Puyol, and had Yaya Toure playing as a makeshift centre-back. They had another defender, Eric Abidal, sent off in the second leg of that semi at Chelsea, and Dani Alves booked so he missed the winning final.
Or take the last London team to reach a final, the surprise 2012 winners, Chelsea, who were down to 10 men when they edged through their semi-final at Barcelona. They had four men, including the captain, John Terry, suspended for the final in Munich against Bayern, whom they beat on penalties.
“A lot of circumstances haven’t been with us,” Pochettino said. “But I don’t believe the pressure of the Champions League has been affecting us.” That belief is about to be definitively examined.
Updated: May 9, 2019 12:38 AM