This team has not yet peaked. This team is not yet ready to cede ground to the established elite. This team still believes it can complete an unthinkable triumph, and this team has given us precious few reasons to doubt them. “We grow every game,” said Matthijs de Ligt after full-time on Tuesday evening. That is not just a predictable cliche. It’s the truth.
Ajax are the first team from outside Europe’s top five leagues to reach the Champions League semi-finals since 2005. Usually when an unfamiliar guest trashes the house of one of the elite, as Ajax did against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu, they soon run out of steam. But Ajax are only growing in power.
There are certain stereotypes that all footballing underdogs adhere to. They must triumph through grit and gnarled experience, suffer periods of excellent fortune and take the chances that come their way. There will be periods when their backs are against the wall.
But Ajax are here to rip up your rulebook. They have triumphed against Real Madrid and Juventus not through grim pragmatism but free-flowing, joyous football. They held both opponents at arm’s length and toyed with them. They missed chance after chance but always promised to create more. They needed no fortune. As for the experience, more than half of the starting XI in Turin was aged 23 or under.
The phenomenal talent within this Ajax squad only makes their success this season more important. The reality of European football is that Ajax will likely be picked apart by the financial behemoths who have been left so bruised by them this season, just as Monaco were two years ago. But performing so far above expectation increases the potential transfer fees that enables Ajax to fund the next wave, and also creates a shared legacy before the best players part ways for pastures new.
To repeat the sentiments of this column after the miracle in Madrid, this is Johan Cruyff’s vision for Ajax incarnate: a young team crammed full of technical ability and courage have stayed true to their principles in two of the toughest arenas in world football, and have come out of both as people’s champions. They trusted the process and they trusted each other. Now Ajax should fear nobody; they have nothing to lose.
Tottenham and Mauricio Pochettino
Rode their luck? You bet. The second best team on the night? Comfortably. But will Pochettino and any of those supporters who writhed and jumped in the away end at full-time care? Of course they bloody won’t. They travelled up to Manchester with more fear in their hearts and heads than hope, but they travel back with bleary eyes, sore throats and broad smiles on their faces that will take weeks to wipe off. Tottenham Hotspur are in the semi-finals of the European Cup. Even saying the sentence out loud makes you smile (Arsenal fans, skip this bit).
Praise for Pochettino has always been offset by the ‘but what has he won?’ brigade, usually fans of rival clubs or those who refuse to assess a manager with any degree of nuance. My usual response is to ask that they take a step back and appreciate Pochettino’s work as a whole.
But on Thursday morning, you don’t need to step back to appreciate Pochettino’s extraordinary achievement. Get right up close, so your nose is pressed against the side of Tottenham’s new stadium, and breathe it in. With a net spend of approximately £18m over ten transfer windows, and with the sixth-highest wage bill in his domestic league, Pochettino has taken a team to three consecutive top-four finishes in a climate when it has never been harder to break up the financially bloated cabal. He has taken Tottenham to their first European Cup semi-final in 57 years.
Things can quickly unravel when you’re competing against richer clubs with stronger and deeper squads. Pochettino’s hardest task is to stop one or two poor results causing a tidal wave of opinion that his mask is slipping and that Spurs will fall away. A spot in next season’s Champions League is far from guaranteed. There are plenty lining up only too happy to kill his buzz.
But that is Pochettino’s greatest achievement. In less than five years, he has transformed this club beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. In his four full seasons he has achieved more top-four finishes than Spurs managed in the previous 24 years. Pochettino has normalised success, and he’s done it without wanton spending and with a humility and grace that many around him lack.
You can keep bringing it back to trophies if you like, as if a League Cup would make any difference and as if it isn’t almost impossible for Tottenham to compete with the financial behemoths in the Premier League and Champions League. But that would be to deliberately blind yourself to the house that Pochettino has built. Success can be the creation of a legacy, of persuading a support that they can believe in magic.
Sorry, almost impossible to compete with those behemoths. Tottenham fans will spend the next two weeks wondering quite how their team are now slight favourites to reach the Champions League final. That is Pochettino’s gift to his club: hundreds of thousands of supporters wondering just how they got here, and just how much higher they can go.
Now go and bloody read 16 Conclusions.
Matthijs de Ligt
The leader by example of this Ajax revolution, and an astonishingly composed defender at the age of 19. If Ajax teach you the process, innate talent takes you further. No wonder De Ligt is the girl all the bad guys want.
Erik ten Hag
A deserved word for Ten Hag, who most football supporters wouldn’t be able to pick out in a line-up even after the astonishing events of Tuesday evening. The long-termism and sustainability of this project means that Cruyff, Ruben Jongkind and Wim Jonk deserve the plaudits, but so too does a manager who has proven himself capable of knitting together the team and keeping feet on the ground in unlikely circumstances.
Oh he’s capable of carrying Harry Kane’s can alright. Son was barely involved in play during the second half, but his ability to be in the right place when Tottenham need him most is supreme. So too was the finish for the second goal. Wednesday’s two strikes took Son to 20 goals for the season for his club. It’s a damn shame that he will miss the semi-final first leg.
Gifted the second goal by David de Gea and assisted for the first by Ashley Young condensing two years of decline into a 15-second clip. But it’s still an honour to watch Messi ruling his roost on glamourous Champions League nights. His new age of energy conservation, where he plays in either first or sixth gear, is an effort to extend his career. That’s something we should all be on board with.
Remarkably little to say, which is a testament to Liverpool’s serene progress. The doubts surrounding their away performances in the group stages have been extinguished by comfortable victories in Munich and Porto, but we never even considered quarter-final exit as a likely eventuality. Jurgen Klopp’s team have too much for all but the best nowadays.
For all the wasted talk of a Manchester City Quadruple, Liverpool are still chasing what would be a monumental league and European Cup double. They will trouble Barcelona more than Manchester United did.
Liverpool’s front three
In 2017/18, Liverpool’s front three all scored in the same game on nine separate occasions. In 2018/19, that front three have only done it four times. But a Champions League quarter-final is a nice moment for everyone to get involved and find their groove ahead of a dual assault on league and cup.
More chances created than any other player on the pitch. This new role really is working a treat.
The fingers in the ears as he celebrated his goal only served to highlight the deterioration in the relationship between Coutinho and Barcelona fans, but it was still a heck of a strike. There are few better in world football with the ball at their feet on the left edge of the penalty area. You wait for the net to ripple and the crowd to rise as one.
Cristiano Ronaldo, but…
A terrible night for Ronaldo. He was signed to be Juventus’ difference-maker, but was ultimately unable to do it. It will only get harder and harder for him to add to his tally of Champions League medals.
But Ronaldo deserves no blame for the events of Tuesday, having scored the game’s opening goal. If only his goals in quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals counted, he’d still be the 13th top scorer in European Cup history.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United, for whom reality bites
Ole’s at the wheel, but the engine is rusty, the indicators don’t work and there’s a funny smell every time the accelerator pedal is pressed.
Solskjaer did achieve a significant bump as temporary manager, and that should not be overlooked amid the subsequent rut. His positivity, can-do attitude and regular mentions of Manchester United’s past success worked as a motivational tactic. He also benefited from not being Jose Mourinho. Gone was the blame culture, the victimisation and the media moodiness.
But that can only work for so long. This squad is in serious need of surgery. Some have been damaged by Mourinho’s tactics and man management, others were never good enough and have been retained for too long. You suspect some don’t particularly want to be there any more. That creates a toxicity that no amount of cheerleading can mask.
A club’s reputation is defined from the top down. Put a structure in place, and the rest will follow. There will always be mistaken decisions and missteps, but if the processes are watertight then they will eventually win out. United’s hierarchy are as watertight as Henry and Liza’s bucket.
There is clearly a reasonable argument that United were unduly persuaded by Solskjaer’s initial performance, putting them off the scent of Mauricio Pochettino’s more established credentials. But in reality they had little choice once their interim measure excelled so quickly. To change tack then would have been to risk ceding all goodwill. Perhaps at least they should have waited until the summer to assess, but what’s done is done. Solskjaer was hardly ever likely to turn down the chance.
But Solskjaer must now play his part, and I’m not talking about mentioning what happened in 1999 as if it is in any way relevant 20 years later. Football has changed since then, and so too have United. They are a creaking, cracking giant. Solskjaer must ditch the air of ‘I’m just pleased to be here’ and instead stand up to United’s hierarchy. He must push for a sporting director to take charge of off-field affairs and hammer home the importance of investing in the playing staff. Who leaves Old Trafford is as important as who stays if the smell of damp and mould is to be removed. The stadium itself is in desperate need of some tender loving care (and money).
If Solskjaer eventually fails as United manager, so be it. Those before him have and those after him might too. But if he fails without standing firm on the club’s necessary path to redemption, he is doing no job at all. There’s not much point having goodwill, respect and a link to the past if you don’t use it to sculpt the future.
That bloody defence
In December 2011, Manchester United lost 2-1 in Basel and were eliminated from the Champions League at the group stage for only the third time in 17 years. That night in Switzerland, Ashley Young played on the left wing, Phil Jones played in central midfield and Chris Smalling played at right-back. It was a lamentable United performance.
Seven-and-a-half years later, those same three players not only played for United as they tumbled out of the Champions League again, they all started in the same defence.
By my reckoning, United have spent £868m on new players in the interim. That they still have Jones, Young and Smalling in their starting XI in a Champions League quarter-final in the Nou Camp is a lasting monument to the miserable mismanagement at the top of this great club. Their previous managers (David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho) have played a significant part in the wastage and all deserve censure, but it’s those above them that should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
Young has now declined beyond the point of return. Jones was made a hostage to fortune by early comparisons with United greats and will never come close to matching up to any of them. Smalling is passable as reserve option. Eric Bailly has been bombed out. Diogo Dalot might well come good but must now start every week and be given the chance to prove it. Victor Lindelof might well be a competent starting option, but needs a steady and reliable partner.
United need at least two defenders this summer, and that’s without the David de Gea conundrum. Prepare your positions for multiple media links to exciting names followed by eventual disappointment.
This will haunt Guardiola, have no doubt about that. A manager with a reputation for winning league titles but finding creative ways to miss out on Europe’s top prize has performed his most spectacular inadvertent escape act yet. Manchester City players will file into training as they left the pitch on Wednesday; shattered by the disbelief that they are not through to face Ajax.
On the balance of play, they deserved it. Nine City players had shots, nine created chances and most were guilty of missing at least one. Even then, four goals should have been enough. City’s propensity to suffer defensive mishaps with the worst possible timing has not yet been expunged, particularly in the Champions League. First Monaco, then Liverpool, then Tottenham. Fifteen goals conceded in 570 minutes.
But Guardiola must concede (lol), privately or publicly, that he made mistakes. Kevin de Bruyne should have started the first leg, and was comfortably the best player at the Etihad. Vincent Kompany failed to stay close enough to Son to guard him effectively, and John Stones would surely have done a better job. Leroy Sane was kept back in both matches; he should have been selected over Riyad Mahrez in the first leg. Fernandinho was introduced to protect their advantage at a time when City had Tottenham on the ropes and could have killed off the tie, yet invited pressure. These are all small misdemeanours, but they gave Spurs hope.
This column has said it before, but that’s why being a manager of a financially elite club is so difficult. This notion that it’s easy to spend money and sit back as the team wins game after game is entirely undermined by the margins for error being so small. Guardiola could win the domestic treble this season, and some will still paint him as a failure because of the events of the last eight days. And while the Champions League continues to elude him away from Barcelona and Lionel Messi, some always will.
Juventus – their last chance?
Wasted their second chance. Atletico Madrid were a malleable and generous second-leg opponent, but Ajax were the opposite. And if Ten Hag’s team stayed true to their principles after falling behind, Juventus panicked and resorted to looking long to Ronaldo.
This is the one disadvantage of Ronaldo’s presence: it allows others to hide in his shadow and avoid pulling their weight. Paulo Dybala’s form has fallen off a cliff. Emre Can isn’t good enough for a team with ambitions of winning the Champions League. Federico Bernardeschi has been excellent on occasion but was lacking when the situation demanded he step up. Moise Kean is the future, but cannot be expected to carry the can.
Such is the skewing towards Europe’s financial elite in this competition, Juventus have felt like underdogs in the last few years. Italy’s dominant club, who are hardly a heartwarming tale of small-time made good, punched above their weight to reach two Champions League finals in four years. But you have to make it count. There is no legacy at Juventus for managers who almost win things.
Now it is appropriate to ask whether Juventus have missed the boat. Giorgio Chiellini and Ronaldo are 34, Blaise Matuidi, Mario Mandzukic and Sami Khedira are 32, Leonardo Bonucci is 31, Juan Cuadrado 30, Miralem Pjanic 29 and Alex Sandro and Douglas Costa 28. Chances like these, Champions League quarter-final second legs with your side in the ascendancy, will not come many more times for this Juventus generation. Are the players coming through behind them good enough, with the exception of Kean?
And so the £300m spent on Ronaldo’s transfer fee and committed wages take on a new spin, because they emphasised the urgency of Champions League success. Without him, they could have bought half a new team. In two years’ time, that’s exactly what they might need.
David de Gea
Not quite sure why you want to play in Spain, Dave, given that the country has apparently put you under a weird curse.