Through 15 minutes, it looked like Ajax were playing a particularly easy group stage match rather than the away leg of the Champions League semifinal. The Dutch Boys showed up at Tottenham’s brand new stadium and promptly put the undermanned London club in a variety of submission moves, moving the ball around the nonexistent Spurs midfield and generally looking like the team that had shocked the world by eliminating Real Madrid and Juventus in the previous two rounds.
Ajax’s early gameplan was rewarded on the scoreboard in the 15th minute, when an incredible Hakim Ziyech through ball found a barely-onside Donny van de Beek wide-open inside the Spurs box, with only an overmatched Hugo Lloris standing between him and a crucial away goal. Lloris...did not do anything right—though you can’t really blame the guy when he was stranded in a 2-on-1 from about 8 yards out—and van de Beek scored what would prove the only goal in an enormous 1-0 Ajax win.
The visitors’ domination continued after the goal. Ajax had plenty of chances to double their lead in the first half, while Tottenham’s most important highlight of the half was seeing their two best defenders (Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld) bonk heads going up for a header.
Vertonghen took the worst of the hit and needed medical attention. Inexplicably, the Spurs medical staff let the visibly woozy and bloody center back return to the field. Thankfully, Vertonghen was lucid enough to call for a sub a short time after. The image of him hunched over in need of assistance to walk off the pitch and down the tunnel for treatment is a haunting example of soccer’s deplorable treatment of head injuries.
Weirdly, that injury (and the subsequent substitution, which saw midfielder Moussa Sissoko enter for Vertonghen) seemed to rally Spurs, who prior to that looked like a shadow of the team that beat Manchester City in the quarterfinals. Though it didn’t lead to many real chances, Tottenham were able to establish consistent possession of the ball (they started with 30 percent possession before controlling things in the second half to finish with 52 percent) and give their defense some some much needed respite from the ceaseless Ajax attack.
In a two-legged tie, a 0-1 loss at home in the first leg is pretty ominous, and Spurs were lucky avoid an even bleaker scoreline in the 78th minute. That was when the hero of the Real Madrid tie, Dušan Tadić, found David Neres in the box with tons of space. The Brazilian forward froze Lloris with a far post shot that, luckily for Spurs, clanged off the woodwork and bounded safely away:
That was Ajax’s only real chance of the second half. The Dutch side spent most of the second 45 minutes trying to hang onto the lead. A young team like Ajax can often fall into a bit of naivety (prime example: on the sequence after their goal, with a 1-0 lead away from home, Ajax defender Matthijs De Ligt barreled forward into the penalty box to try to get another goal; conservatism was not on Ajax’s menu today), but they remained focused for 50 minutes of Spurs pressure to preserve the shutout and come away with the victory.
Now, Tottenham must hope an encouraging second half and the return of Son Heung-min—by far their best player in the absence of the injured Harry Kane—can lift them to a similarly impressive away win in Holland next week. Ajax delivered the first punch, and it landed square on Tottenham’s jaw. But by virtue of fighting back and at least containing the damage, Spurs gave them a legit chance to turn things back around. The result was bad for Tottenham, but it easily could’ve been so much worse.