Champions League Preview: Does Tottenham stand a chance against giant-killer Ajax?

Dele Alli Tottenham

Can Dele Alli and Tottenham pull off a surprise against giant-killer Ajax?

Tottenham have been a fascinating team this season, with Mauricio Pochettino doing just enough to keep this sinking side afloat. Spurs didn’t spend for two straight transfer windows, and although the cohesiveness and familiarity that this team has with each other perhaps gives it an advantage, the lack of additions has led to a paucity of depth.

Injuries have ravaged this club, as Harry Kane has twice missed extended time, and Moussa Sissoko, Dele Alli, Son Hueng-Min, Eric Dier and many others have all also been hurt.

Son has also spent time away due to international duties, and will miss the Champions League opener against Ajax because he racked up too many yellow cards in European play (a ridiculous rule, but that’s for another blog).

Spurs have had other heroes this season. Lucas Moura has stepped up in times of need, maybe most notably in the Champions League Group Stage when Spurs needed a late goal against Barcelona at Camp Nou, and he came through.

Harry Winks scored a header in the dying seconds at Fulham to keep Spurs in the Premier League title race (they’ve since fallen out). Christian Eriksen has saved them with late goals against Burnley and Brighton, and backup striker Fernando Llorente scored massive goals against Borussia Dortmund and Manchester City, including the header off of a corner that is the reason Spurs are here.

One of those guys (other than Winks, who’s out with injury) will need to come up huge in the first leg against Ajax on Tuesday.

Ajax celebration Real Madrid

Ajax pulled off one of the greatest stunners in Champions League history when it thumped Real Madrid, 4-1, in the second leg of its Round of 16 tie.

As far as Ajax is concerned, this has been a magical ride for the Dutch club. As an American without a lifelong history of soccer-watching, it’s hard to come up with a comparison for what their run has meant in American sports terms. It feels like Butler’s run to the 2010 Final Four, or maybe Wichita State’s in 2013, or Loyola-Chicago’s last season.

Butler seems like the most apt comparison because Ajax isn’t completely out of nowhere– it’s had plenty of runs of success before. Ajax actually won the Champions League (then the creatively-named Cup Winners’ Cup) in 1987, and reached the final in ’92, ’95, and ’96.

So maybe it’s more like Arkansas making a run to the Final Four.

Either way, this year’s run has been remarkable. Ajax went 3-0-3 (W-L-D) in the Group Stage, finishing second to Bayern Munich and elbowing perennial Portugese contenders Benfica and Greek champions AEK Athens out of the competition.

Then, they unleashed hell on European football’s royalty– thrashing Real Madrid in a beatdown of historic proportions before toppling Christiano Ronaldo and Juventus (!) in the quarterfinals.

The Dutch side’s 4-1 whirlwind victory over Madrid will long be remembered as one of the most stunning results in the tournament’s history, though in a few years it might not look as stunning considering the talent on this team.

Ajax is loaded with young stars, from Frenkie De Jong to Matthijs de Ligt to Hakim Ziyech.

De Jong and de Ligt are both already headed to Barcelona next season, which is just the way of world football. It’s unfortunate, from an outsider’s perspective, that a team as talented as Ajax just doesn’t have the financial means to keep its incredible core together, but not many organizations in sports can compete with the kind of money that FCB, Real Madrid, Manchester City, and others can throw around.

That’s what makes this year’s Ajax team all the more special, and this run all the more improbable. Ajax will earn a lot of money in transfer fees thanks to its wunderkind youngsters, and attempt to reload and make another run at this thing in a few years with another cast of young studs.

Whether or not the Dutch side makes it back, it knows this is an opportunity it won’t have often.

PREDICTION: Full disclosure– your boy here is a Tottenham fan. So, do with that information what you will. That being said, while Ajax deserves to be the favorite based on current form (Spurs are sliding in the Premier League and only remain in third thanks to the current incompetence of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchster United), Tottenham does have a puncher’s chance in this tie.

Son Hueng-Min’s absence makes Leg 1 doubly difficult, but Tottenham is at home, in its new stadium, where it shocked Manchester City, 1-0, in the quarterfinals. It’s not inconcievable that it could get a goal or two from Moura, Llorente, or another unlikely source (Vertonghen was the hero against Dortmund). The key will be keeping Ajax off the scoreboard.

You’d feel a lot better about Spurs’ chances if Kane were around, too, and it’s hard to see Tottenham hanging in there over two legs.

Ajax is the clear-cut favorite, but Spurs have pulled out plenty of magic before– including a Group Stage great escape just to get here. Pochettino is one of the best managers in the game, and he’ll have his team ready. Our pick is Ajax, but it should be a fascinating matchup.

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