Ajax's 'young lions' ready for tough battle in return leg

Ajax players applaud fans after the UEFA Champions League semi-final match against Tottenham in London, on April 30, 2019.
Ajax players applaud fans after the UEFA Champions League semi-final match against Tottenham in London, on April 30, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON • Ajax coach Erik ten Hag praised his "young lions" after the Dutch club moved within touching distance of the Champions League final after a deserved 1-0 win at Tottenham on Tuesday.

Donny van de Beek's well-taken 15th-minute goal put Ajax firmly in the driver's seat against a disappointing Spurs side, who face a tough task to turn around the semi-final in next week's second leg in Amsterdam.

"A fantastic achievement. We fought like lions," ten Hag said.

"We are halfway there and in good shape. The willpower was very nice to see."

Having beaten holders Real Madrid and fellow European giants Juventus on the way to their first Champions League semi-final since 1997, Ajax again showed why so many of their squad are attracting attention from some of the continent's biggest clubs.

Van de Beek was superb and even overshadowed Barcelona-bound midfielder Frenkie de Jong, while 19-year-old captain Matthijs de Ligt showed maturity beyond his years to marshal the defence as Tottenham improved after the break.

Had David Neres not been denied by the post late on, Ajax's position would look impregnable, but ten Hag knows the job is not yet completed.

"I think it's an excellent result for us. We won the game. We are satisfied. We have a very good starting point, but we're only halfway through," he told reporters.

"We can play football in different styles. We can defend very well. We have a team that work together really well; they can fight together really well."

  • Only one of the 17 previous teams to lose the first leg at home in a European Cup semi-final have progressed to the final, incidentally Ajax in 1995-96.

The 22-year-old van de Beek said he still expected a tough battle next week at the Johan Cruyff stadium.

"The first 30 minutes were good but we found it tough after that. They changed things up and we had difficulty dealing with that," he said. "The second half was really a battle. It will be a tough game next week but, with our own supporters behind us, it will certainly be a huge boost to reach the final.

"We have to develop a good tactical plan so that we can play like we did in the first 30 minutes (of Tuesday's game)."

Tottenham's suspended forward Son Heung-min is set to be involved in the return leg.

And ten Hag is well aware of the danger the South Korean possesses.

"Of course, he's a very good player," he said, when asked if Son will change the way they approach the second leg.

"When he's not available for Spurs, that's a very big disadvantage for them.

"But, of course, we also have very good players to defend against him, and we will do that."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2019, with the headline 'Ajax's 'young lions' ready for tough battle in return leg'. Print Edition | Subscribe