Can a battle-worn, visibly tired and injury-hit Tottenham Hotspur side conjure up one final push against an in-form Ajax Amsterdam? That's the question everyone will be asking as the London side travel to the Netherlands to overcome a 1-0 deficit in the second leg of the UEFA Champions League semi-final.
Things aren't going to be easy for Spurs though with Ajax playing a brand of exciting football even Johan Cruyff himself will be proud of. The Dutch league toppers, buoyed by the performances of youngsters such as Frenkie de Jong, Donny van de Beek and Matthijs de Ligt, have had a stellar season so far and will be looking to add more trophies to the club's prestigious trophy cabinet by the end of the month.
Hitting Ajax on the break
So how do Spurs stop a team who dominated both Juventus and Real Madrid? Well, maybe you don't have to. The key to unlocking the Ajax puzzle might well be to not try and play the game they want you to. Both of Ajax's previous Champions League opponents approached the game with an air of superiority — they believed they could outplay Ajax with their own game and finally paid the price of underestimating the Dutch side.
Mauricio Pochettino will have other plans for the team from Amsterdam though. With his side weakened by injuries to Harry Kane and Harry Winks (Jan Vertonghen is also doubtful for the match after suffering a concussion in the first leg), Tottenham manager will be forced to play a team that will defend in numbers and wait for an opportunity to pounce.
Contrary to popular perception, Ajax did not even dominate in possession against Tottenham in the first leg. Spurs had better control of possession after the enforced substitution of Jan Vertonghen changed the shape of the side into a 4-4-2. Luckily for Spurs, they will have the services of Son Heung-min, who returns from a suspension. Pochettino highlighted the need to approach the match with a winner's mentality and one shouldn't be surprised if they start the match in a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond, the same strategy he employed against Manchester City in the second leg of the quarter-finals.
Lucas Moura should partner Son up front while Christian Eriksen will be expected to be the main attacking force in the centre of the midfield. Spurs will be looking at Dele Alli and Moussa Sissoko to win them the headers and the knockdowns from their goalkeeper's distributions as it would be unwise for them to try and play out from the back against an Ajax side that performs the first press better than most sides in Europe right now. Should Spurs win the second balls in the midfield they have the creativity to spread it out for their pacy forwards Moura and Son to exploit. This would require immense patience though and Spurs should go to Amsterdam ready to be dominated.
Like Cruyff explains in the video below, the diamond formation has the potential to be drawn out of shape as well, especially against a side which moves the ball as well as Ajax, which is where Spurs will be hoping for a disciplined performance from Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier. Both full backs had horror outings in London a week back but both have the potential to rise up to the occasion. When in form, the duo is a major attacking force for the side too and could play a huge role in freeing Spurs' forward, especially if it gets cramped up in the centre.
Ajax's spine the key
Luckily for Spurs, only one goal separates both sides and if the London team strikes first, there will be some doubts creeping into the young minds at Ajax. The Dutch side have conceded seven goals in their last five home matches in all competitions and only kept their first clean sheet of the knockout rounds in last week's win against Spurs. If Spurs play to their plan they will find opportunities to score.
Erik ten Hag's men won't be pushovers though, especially with the form shown by the likes of Dusan Tadic, Van de Beek, De Jong and De Ligt in the recent weeks. These four players operating right through the centre of the field have been the spine for Ajax this season and Spurs' main job will be to keep everyone, especially de Jong, out of the game. De Jong has a special eye for initiating attacks from the back and it is will be important for Spurs to cut his space down as soon as possible.
A narrow 4-4-2 can cramp Ajax but there are no specialist defensive midfielders in this Spurs team barring Victor Wanyama which would mean an advantage for the home side in that area of the field. Alli and Sissoko will have to put in a defensive shift to keep the Dutchmen quiet.
The form isn't on Spurs' side either. Pochettino's men have now lost five of their last six games across all competitions while their away form has been worse with nine losses in 10 matches. Ajax, meanwhile, are on a good run of form with eight wins and a draw in their last 10 matches in all competitions. The first goal will have a huge role in the way the tie shifts – if Spurs score first we will certainly be in for a treat. All Spurs need to remember is that a 2-1 result in Amsterdam is all they need to qualify for the final. For Ajax, it will be a case of continuing to do what they've been doing most season — play scintillating football.
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Updated Date: May 08, 2019 11:07:00 IST