Ahead of the Tottenham–Ajax 2019 UEFA Champions League Semifinal first leg Tuesday, here’s a look at what both teams need to do to win, as well as the key players to watch.
Ajax will win if …
The Dutch club continues to play at the level it has throughout the Champions League. We knew before their quarterfinal win over Juventus that Ajax had a roster full of talented young players. They showed us in Turin in Leg 2 that they can be as physical as they are flashy, an impressive feat against such a seasoned group of gritty players.
Against a Tottenham team without either Harry Kane or Son Heung-min on Tuesday (Son will be back for Leg 2), Ajax will have a pronounced talent advantage, in our opinion. Recent results and form also make it hard to understand why Ajax is not the clear favorite: the Eredivisie outfit has not lost in its last eight games, while Spurs were shut out by West Ham in their most recent game and have scored just once in their last three EPL matches.
Everyone knows about both Barcelona summer transferee Frenkie de Jong and (likely Barcelona summer transferee) Matthijs de Ligt at this point, but Ajax are by no means a two-man squad. From top to bottom, this team was clearly superior to Real Madrid and Juventus in the round of 16 and quarters, respectively, and especially so in the second legs.
I also expect Manager Erik ten Hag’s side to benefit from playing the second leg of the semifinals in front of its home fans after having to finish off both Los Blancos and Juve on the road. As long as Ajax do not fall into a hole amid the raucous atmosphere at Tottenham’s new home, I believe they will move on without a ton of drama. And I expect the party before, during and after Leg 2 in Amsterdam to be outrageous.
Spurs will win if …
The homefield advantage in Leg 1 changes the fact that they’re significantly undermanned? I should probably have much more faith in Mauricio Pochettino’s men after they stunned Manchester City, but I just don’t like their chances here.
Though Spurs have played well without Kane, I don’t see a club missing its best player (Kane) and arguably its second-best player (Son) coming out of Leg 1 in a position to advance to the UCL final. It’s not just the losses of Kane and Son, either, as Harry Winks is out of the picture due to injury, while Erik Lamela, Moussa Sissoko and Jan Vertonghen are all doubtful, per WhoScored.
But this is supposed to be the section where I make the case why they will win, so let’s (try to) change course. A big reason Spurs were up 1-0 going into the second leg of the quarterfinals was Pep Guardiola’s head-scratching decision to keep Kevin de Bruyne and Leroy Sane on the bench until the 89th minute. Both teams played somewhat conservatively for the first 90 minutes of their match-up – especially in comparison to their shootout in Leg 2 – as Spurs had four shots on goal, while Manchester City had just two. Could we see another first leg in which both teams appear more determined to protect their goal than attack the opposition? Not if everything I’ve seen from Ajax is anything to go by. It’s also doubtful we’ll see any Ajax stars on the bench for 80-plus minutes.
One other possible advantage for Tottenham is their quartet of players who previously played for Ajax: Christian Eriksen, Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Davinson Sánchez. Those four may be able to help Pochettino come up with a better scheme to combat Ajax’s pressure than RM or Juventus was able to.
Ajax’s most important player and secret weapon are Frenkie de Jong and Dusan Tadic, respectively.
De Jong has starred throughout his team’s UCL run, and I expect him to remain at that level against Spurs. Eriksen and Dele Alli will have their work cut out for them trying to battle the 21-year-old future Barcelona midfielder.
De Ligt can’t be considered a “secret” anything at this point, so I’ll go with Tadic. Though his team’s balance – along with its swagger – is its calling card, I’d argue that Tadic is the most important piece of the Ajax attack. He has a chance to carve up Spurs’ injury-depleted midfield and back line.
Spurs’ most important player and secret weapon are Eriksen and Hugo Lloris, respectively.
Eriksen will be his team’s best player on the field in the first leg, and he’ll be counted on to step up with Kane and Son unavailable. If he can outplay, or at least equal, de Jong and generate offense for his teammates — no pressure! — Spurs’ chances improve drastically.
No matter how many opportunities Ajax create, Spurs can stay level if Lloris is making stops like the one he made on Sergio Aguero’s PK in leg 1 of the quarters. I don’t see Tottenham going through with anything short of a spectacular effort by Lloris, but if he can keep it low-scoring, anything could happen late in a 1-1 or 0-0 game.
This match-up is essentially a coin-flip if Son and Kane were available, but they’re not. That is for the first time being reflected in betting odds too. Ajax is actually favored. That hasn’t happened in any of their Champions League rounds, and wasn’t the case when betting opened.
All listed odds from FanDuel Sportsbook NJ. Leg 1 is listed first.
|Tottenham +120||Draw +210||Ajax +240|
|Ajax +110||Draw +240||Tottenham +250|
FanDuel Sportsbook NJ has Ajax now at -126 to advance to Spurs -102.