For Tottenham Hotspur, it is not going to be easy to find a way back. They will still like to think they can save themselves and to give them their due, they can be emboldened by what happened on that epic night against Manchester City to get them into this semi-final. Yet it will clearly need something dramatic again – something, frankly, that seemed beyond them for long parts of this defeat – if they are to stop this vibrant Ajax side reaching the final.
What other conclusion can there be after that 30-minute period in the first half when Ajax seemed utterly determined to remind the watching world that they own the patent to Total Football? In those moments they demonstrated to Spurs how demanding the Champions League can be at its elite level, when the quality suddenly goes up a few notches and your opponents are passing the ball like it is a computer game. And for a while, with Donny van de Beek scoring one goal and threatening others, it did look as though Ajax genuinely fancied their chances of making sure the second leg was little more than a formality.
As it turned out, Spurs made it through without conceding again and can at least be encouraged by the improvement in their second-half performance. It was still a deflating night for the Premier League’s third-placed team, trying to reach their first-ever European Cup final, but when Neres had the chance to score a second for Ajax in the 78th minute his angled left-foot shot thudded back off a post. That alone will leave Spurs believing all sorts of possibilities are still open in the Johan Cruyff Arena next week.
By then, Son Heung-min will be available again for Spurs after missing this match because of the number of bookings he had accumulated under Uefa’s totting-up system. Harry Kane’s chances of returning early from his damaged ankle ligaments are rated, however, somewhere between minimal and non-existent. Spurs are determined to show they can still flourish without the England captain but his absence has to count as another setback against Pochettino’s side.
Kane loves the big occasions and, without him, Spurs looked strangely flat and anxious during those moments when Ajax moved the ball so elegantly and purposefully it must have been startling for the home supporters to see them being so comprehensively outplayed.
Not that it should have come as any surprise that Erik ten Hag’s side were so ambitious in possession. What we saw here was merely Ajax continuing where they had left off against Juventus in the quarter-final and, before that, Real Madrid in the first knockout phase. It was glorious to watch, slick and inventive, with an emphasis on speed and control.
Ajax have shown already in this competition why they have serious aspirations of adding to their three successive European Cups from the 1970s, as well as the one they won in 1995, and they were quick to reinforce that point. Around the half-hour mark there was one statistic to show Ajax had had 69% of the ball. In truth, it felt like the number-crunchers were being generous to Spurs.
As much as anything, this Ajax side are acutely aware of the merits of scoring in the away leg. They had managed two in Turin, to go with the four they scored in the Bernabéu, and right from the start they seemed determined to go for it again. David Neres, Lasse Schöne and Hakim Ziyech were all involved in the crisp, incisive exchange of passes that led to Van de Beek’s goal. Spurs could not get near the ball and Danny Rose was marginally out of position when Ziyech played the killer pass. Van de Beek controlled the ball while swivelling to face the goal all in one movement. Now it was him against Hugo Lloris and the goalkeeper was fooled by the way the Ajax player shaped to shoot. Van de Beek waited for Lloris to go down and then drew back his right foot for a second time to pick out the bottom corner.
When everyone gets time to catch their breath the Spurs fans should reflect this was exactly the kind of occasion for which the stadium was built. It was a clever touch as well to cut the music a few minutes before kick-off to let the supporters create their own atmosphere. The noise was unrelenting and, if nothing else, it was an incredible occasion for a club embracing a new-build ground.
On the pitch, however, Spurs were finding it difficult, to say the least, and there will be questions about the medical treatment that Jan Vertonghen received after the clash of heads with his team-mate Toby Alderweireld that ended his involvement late in the first half. Vertonghen was bloodied in the collision and so wobbly on his feet the Spanish referee was among those questioning whether the player should stay on. Spurs wanted him to continue but Vertonghen was obviously in a bad way when he signalled that that had been a bad idea shortly afterwards.
Ajax might have scored again in the first half when another classy exchange of passes inside the penalty area led to Van de Beek dummying the ball then running on to Dusan Tadic’s through ball to give himself another shooting opportunity, though this time it was kept out by Lloris. Spurs had to improve and, in fairness, that is exactly what happened after the interval.
Suddenly Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose were pushing up more. Dele Alli fizzed a volley straight at the Ajax goalkeeper, André Onana, and the noise went up again, imploring the players in white to save themselves.
Instead the best chance fell to Neres and the woodwork saved Spurs from having to go to Amsterdam with a two-goal deficit to chase.