The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium plays host to the first Champions League semi-final of the 2018/19 season on Tuesday evening as Ajax make the trip to the capital of England.
It’s a match-up between the underdogs. When the quarter-final ties were drawn, very few people gave either side a chance of progressing.
Spurs found themselves up against Pep Guardiola’s wrecking ball Manchester City side while Ajax had to overcome a Juventus side including Cristiano Ronaldo, the competition’s leading scorer.
Neither side read the script. Ajax stunned the Allianz Stadium. Spurs went toe to toe with the Premier League leaders at the Etihad and did enough to knock them out, albeit with help from VAR.
Now both sides are just two positive results away from a Champions League final, which would be Ajax’s first since 1995 and Tottenham’s first ever.
The best way to describe Tottenham’s form as of late would be patchy. Mauricio Pochettino’s men may have managed to knock the Premier League leaders out of Europe’s premier club competition, but that is just one of five victories they’ve racked up in their last ten matches. They’ve lost the other five games, including losses against Southampton and West Ham.
Their loss against the former was the first time they’ve been defeated in their new stadium. It was also the first time they have conceded a goal on home turf in the five matches they’ve played there.
The streak is over. But that isn’t to say Spurs can’t build on what was a positive record.
Ajax are back to their very best under Erik ten Hag. The former Bayern Munich II coach was appointed in the summer of 2017 to replace the departing Peter Bosz.
Under his guidance, the Amsterdam-based side have won 50 of the 68 matches he’s managed and they currently lead the Eredivisie on goal difference with just two games left to play. If Ajax hold their nerve, it’ll be their first Eredivisie title since 2013/14.
They head into the game against Spurs having lost just once in 14 matches. This run has seen them rack up wins over Real Madrid, rivals PSV and Serie A champions Juventus.
Ten Hag’s men have won seven on the bounce in Holland’s top flight, scoring 23 goals in the process.
Ajax are married to their 4-3-3 system with Frenkie de Jong, Lasse Schone and Donny van de Beek bossing the middle third. In attack, Ten Hag has an array of options with Hakim Ziyech, Dusan Tadic, David Neres, Kasper Dolberg and Klaas Jan Huntelaar sharing the three attacking berths.
More often than not, they plump for Tadic as a false nine and the former Southampton man has delivered. He’s scored 24 goals in the Eredivisie and chipped in with a further six in the Champions League to go alongside his 15 assists.
The Dutch team play a possession-based style and look to work the ball to their talented forward line. You know exactly what they’re going to do but it’s difficult to stop as Juventus and Real Madrid found out.
Pochettino’s hands have been tied this season due to injuries. He’s flip-flopped between the three-at-the-back system and a back four. He’s had to use Dele Alli in midfield as part of a two at times as well as a three.
At times they’ve used a diamond. Other times a 4-2-3-1 formation. Change breeds inconsistency and this is what you’re seeing in results and performances.
On Tuesday it’ll be no different. Pochettino’s selection may be necessity as opposed to choice with Harry Kane ruled out and Heung-min Son suspended.
He could opt to use Moura in the No.9 role and utilise his pace. Alternatively, he could turn to Fernando Llorente. Different threats but both can be match-winners on their day.
The two tempo-setters in the middle third will be the ones to decide the match on Tuesday. Christan Eriksen, facing off against the team he burst onto the scene with, will come up against De Jong. The Ajax youngster has already agreed to join Barcelona in the summer and will want to go out on a high.
Eriksen, rumoured to be a Real Madrid transfer target, is the chief creator for Spurs this season averaging 1.98 key passes as well as creating 0.34 big chances on a per 90-minute basis. The 27-year-old has 16 assists in the Premier League and the Champions League.
His Dutch counterpart isn’t as productive, he’s assisted just three times in the Eredivisie and the Champions League, but he’s just as effective in his own right.
He’s a ball magnet, averaging 90 passes per 90-minutes, and completes close to three dribbles in the Dutch top flight. A true Dutch master on the ball, he’s the man tasked with progressing the ball and getting it into the final third. If he’s on his game, it’s near impossible to stem the tide he creates.
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