Best bit of the Ajax game? Everything before kick-off. Just another day. Work – writing reports up. Chores. Walk dog. More reports. Clear up. Prepare dinner. Get on a train. Watch Spurs in a Champions League semi-final at my home ground. Just another day.
Walking to the ground from Tottenham Hale is the eye of the hurricane, a leisurely stroll through city backstreets before the noise gets you. Far from an intrusive behemoth, the stadium is hidden once more behind the houses, faithful to Spurs’ roots amidst ordered terraces and looming up only when I’m a minute away. So my new routine includes one of life’s little pleasures, the quickening of the step to round the final corner, knowing it’s there, just to see it that much sooner.
Then it hits you. That something in the air. More people, a lot more police, excitement and anticipation. Roads are blocked, the delay serves to ramp up the tension, rumours of bottles thrown on the High Street but no Ajax fans in sight. My first ever queue at the new turnstiles. The welcoming buzz from the concourse, a sound that can only be a football crowd.
The noise from the Park Lane, spreading round the ground, sitting over the centre spot. Intense, vibrant, unforgettable. Doesn’t want to go anywhere. Passion and fury where it belongs.
Second best bit of the Ajax game? The morning after, when you take stock and realise in the cold light of day that it’s just half-time. In between, nah.
Ajax’s movement, pace and intelligence in the first half proved far too hot to handle. We didn’t get near their shadows. No escape from the stifling press. Bad touches and misplaced passes for sure, but there appeared to be no way out. The bloke behind me who coaches from row 23 like a Sunday league manager with a hangover urged more effort and more getting stuck in. Well, yes, but for extended periods, no amount of sweat and toil alone could have stopped the Dutch advances. Their goal released a player who had time and space in a packed penalty area. How did they do that? Spurs’ back five don’t know.
As Vertonghen staggered from the field after a clash of heads with Alderweireld, his distress and state of collapse summed up Spurs’ night so far. Happily, he recovered quickly, although rightly may not be available this weekend due to concussion. Look after him, and let the docs take the decision. We know he’d play for our sake, bleeding and battered, if it were up to him.
If it was hard to believe Spurs are in the semi-final of the Champions League, it was all too easy to envisage it all falling down around our ears. Thinking quickly, Pochettino used this as an opportunity to bring on Our Saviour, Moussa Sissoko, and change from a back three to a 4-4-2. This posed more problems for our opponents, plus Sissoko contributed much-needed energy and drive from deep positions.
Going longer to Llorente proved a worthwhile option. And when I say worthwhile, I mean the only option. Forgive me the delusion that it might have worked, he did his best, but against this defence, his best is not enough. However shrewd his touches and lay-offs, the defence found them relatively straightforward to smother. The tactics also pinned players close to him by way of support, which negates Moura’s pace, makes Dele easier to pick up and limits our options out wide.
We barely served up a decent cross all night. Rose was very good again save for his final ball, the same can’t be said for Trippier, sometimes unfairly criticised but justified on this occasion. Llorente’s in for his aerial ability, yet he missed our best chance, a free header from a first half free kick. Dele looked out of sorts. It may be only a hand injury but his form’s dropped away since it happened. I realise he’s had to drop deeper to do a job for the team but he misses Kane more than any of us.
The state of play in three scenes. Scene one: early on, Eriksen picks up the ball just inside their half, for once in a bit of space. His pass is quick and instinctive. Llorente comes off the defender and turns towards their goal. Then, nothing. He fiddles around because he knows he can’t run with it, something which of course has not escaped our opponents’ attention, so they funnel back into position and he knocks it tamely sideways. It doesn’t sound like much but we didn’t get another similar opportunity. You know Kane or Son would have been gone, up and at them, putting fear and trepidation into Dutch hearts.
That moment sums up where we are right now. I tried not to, really tried, but there were times when I narrowed my eyes and imagined Harry leading the line, head over the ball, hunting and inspiring. Impossible to escape that feeling of what might have been. I sincerely hope that sentence isn’t our season’s epitaph.
Scene two: Tottenham Hotspur play a Champions League semi-final with no forwards on the bench, let alone a striker. Home leg, goal down, we bring on two full-backs, one of whom, good though he is, is really a centre half. Not the time to dwell on this, but the gaps in the squad laid bare and raw. Not even an under 23 striker. It should not have come to this.
Scene three: we’re still in in it. We have it in us to spring a surprise in Amsterdam. We proved against Dortmund that we can defend, and Moura and Son are two ideal forwards for a counter-attacking game.
In the second half, we didn’t play well but we did restrict Ajax’s chances. Lloris had little to do, a sign perhaps that the Dutch are not as effective going forward as they might be. You bring the straws, I’ll clutch them. Even McDonalds paper straws.
It won’t be about a change of personnel. It will be about who we have giving everything they’ve got for the sake of fans and for the shirt. This we know they can do. Poch will come up with something. Show the football world what’s possible, show them who we are and what we have become. As Poch said in the programme, “it’s important that as players and fans, we show why this is such a special football club.” It’s an opportunity of a lifetime. Leave nothing in the dressing room and have no regrets.
Sincere thanks to the gent who walked past before the game, saw my TOMM t-shirt and said he liked the blog.
This week, I guested on the Football Pink podcast, reminiscing about the 1991 cup semi-final. The Arsenal bloke didn’t make it so there’s too much of me. And Gazza’s free-kick should have been third on my all-time list of Spurs’ moments. Listen anyway.