1. Compliments to the Opposition
It feels like a crime against nature to bestow any sort of admiration upon an opponent, but I couldn’t help but goggle at some of the sleek, dreamy football Ajax produced, in the opening fifteen minutes in particular.
The build-up to their goal was jaw-dropping stuff of the highest order – and I don’t just mean the assist, or the pass before that. The little one-touch binge on halfway, facilitated by some neat flicks and backheels, left our heroes giddily spinning around and flailing at shadows. It was a demonstration of the sort of fare to which the good ship Hotspur ought to aspire.
Another move they produced shortly after drew genuine gasps of admiration, which I thought only happened in the short stories one reads in the nonsense magazines in doctor’s waiting rooms, yet as they sliced us open with what looked like well-choreographed balletic movement, there were all sorts of awestruck murmurs amongst the masses.
Difficult not to admire that sort of racket.
2. Llorente: Not At The Required Level
By contrast, we had the honest but fairly abject toil of Llorente. Not really his fault that nature has bestowed upon him a pretty limited set of tools with which to work, but even within these restrictions he had a pretty wretched time of things.
When he did manage to hold up the ball and hold off his foes, his distribution was, on the whole, just plain inaccurate. He passed straight at teammates rather than into their path, and a couple of attempts to spread the play fell short of their intended targets and instead went down the hatches of opponents. who were only too happy to gobble up the ball and turn the tables on us.
The other principal asset of the chap is supposedly his heading, and while I guess I ought to show some compassion and laud him for getting his head to the thing on a few occasions, it does feel a bit like clapping the useless lad at school for taking part.
Rather surreally, I found myself halfway through a Champions League semi-final wishing we could call upon Vincent Janssen, which just goes to show.
So with little potency in attack, and the Ajax lot running rings around us in midfield, they only semblance of a threat we posed in the opening 40 minutes or so was from set-pieces, which was an absolutely dire reflection of how badly we were taking to this business.
Even these set-pieces tend to be about as likely to bring about success as tossing a coin, but at least it reminded the rather eccentric Ajax ‘keeper that he would have to keep his wits about him.
Alas, not only did it fail to bring a goal, it also wiped out poor old Jan – although by an odd quirk of fate, this also stopped the rot by virtue of bringing Sissoko into the fray, and if not quite swinging the tie back in our favour it certainly evened things up a tad.
4. Poch’s Tactics
Easy to say from the sidelines, and in hindsight – two vantage points from which I don’t think I have ever made a mistake – but the fact that the enforced switch to 4-4-2 and addition of Sissoko made such a huge difference rather leads one to shoot an accusing glance or two at Our Glorious Leader for his masterplan at kick-off.
Although massively hamstrung by injuries and whatnot, and unable to call upon Sissoko from the off, the tactical choice of a back-three left us woefully undermanned in midfield, and Ajax tore us to ribbons right from kick-off. Worried murmurs abounded that something had to change before the tie was just a speck in the distance, but Poch seemed happy to watch us cling on by our fingernails, until Jan’s injury forced some action.
Wanyama could not keep a lid on the Ajax midfield, and neither Dele nor Eriksen have too many defensive bones in their bodies, so we were crying out for a change in shape to address the problems at root. The point – and I’ll get there in the end – is that Poch need not have waited so long to switch to a 4-4-2. It appeared that he was willing to wait until half-time, but we were jolly lucky not to be two or three down by that point, and out of the tie.
In the interests of fairness however, I do at least laud the blighter for replacing Jan with Sissoko, rather than for example throwing on Dier as a like-for-like replacement and sticking with the back-three. Lessons, one would hope, have been learned for the second leg.
5. Sissoko’s Star Riseth Ever Higher
Sissoko’s surge towards our Player of the Season Award continued apace on his entrance. The transformation in the chap, from the misfiring ball of limbs but a couple of years ago, to Champions League commander-in-chief, is pretty staggering stuff.
And yet there he was in glorious technicolour, rolling up his sleeves and jumping right into the midst of the fray to wrest back some semblance of control for us.
Where Wanyama made the occasional interception, and Rose’s all-action fire was limited to the left flank, Sissoko went charging straight into the centre, either to make tackles or run with the ball and attract opponents towards him. It did not win the game, but it almost single-handedly stopped us drifting irretrievably out of the tie.
Wrap the chap in cotton wool until the second leg, and with Sonny restored to the attack we might just have a chance.