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Champions League

Tottenham vs Ajax: A meeting between Champions League 'underdogs'

Ajax have the lowest operating budget of the four semi-finalists and Tottenham Hotspur are the only side of the quartet to have never lifted the trophy.

Ajax have the lowest operating budget of the four semi-finalists and Tottenham Hotspur are the only side of the quartet to have never lifted the trophy.

In a footballing context, when we use the term 'underdog' neither 33 time-Eredivise champions Ajax nor the Premier League's Tottenham Hotspur, who have just moved into a new stadium with a reported cost of over 1 billion euros, are the first teams that spring to mind.  However, in the context of the four semi-finalists in the current 2018-19 UEFA Champions League, both the Amsterdam and north London outfits are the teams that many neutrals would like to see lift the Champions League trophy at the Wanda Metropolitano (Madrid) on 1 June.

Surprise package

Few would have imagined that Ajax, upon embarking on their Champions League campaign back on 25 July in the second qualifying round would progress to the heady heights of the semi-finals. Sturm Graz, Standard Liege and Dynamo Kiev were all successfully dispatched by Erik ten Hag's side to see Ajax placed in the third tier pot ahead of the group stage draw with bookmakers offering odds of 150/1 at the time for the Dutch side to win the competition.

Badge/Flag Ajax
  • Netherlands

After successfully negotiating a group stage that saw them pitted against highly fancied Bayern Munich, as well as Benfica and AEK Athens, it was at the knockout stage when people sat up and paid attention to the Dutch side as they progressed to the quarter-finals, eliminating holders Real Madrid with a second-leg display at the Santiago Bernabéu which saw headline writers around the world looking for superlatives to describe this dynamic and exciting young side. Cristiano Ronaldo's Juventus were the next casualty as, once again, Ajax's attractive high-intensity style was too much for the Serie A champions.

Soccer Football - Champions League - Ajax Amsterdam Training - Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, London, Britain - April 29, 2019 Ajax coach Erik ten Hag with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and their players during training

The previously relatively little known names of Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt, Hakim Ziyech, Nicolás Tagliafico, David Neres and veteran Dusan Tadic have all flourished in Ten Hag's 4-2-3-1 formation.

Budget

Ajax's astounding feat is that more remarkable in a day and age when clubs with big budgets dominate the top table of European football. The Dutch side generated an operating revenue in 2017-18 of 92 million euros which is dwarfed by that of Barcelona with the Catalan giants generating 689 million euros in the same season.   

The vast financial difference between Ajax and their fellow Champions League semi-finalists was an issue raised by Ten Hag in the pre-match press conference with the Dutchman playing down suggestions that his side start the tie as favourites.

Erik ten Hag, Manager of Ajax looks on during a training session ahead of their UEFA Champions League Semi Final first leg match against Tottenham Hotspur at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on April 29, 2019 in London

"We get 10 million [euros] for playing in the Eredivisie and they get many more millions for being in the Premier League. Is that not unfair on us?" asked the 49-year-old.

Spurs living the dream

"I'm living my dream. I have already lived my dream. Five years ago [when he arrived], to be in the Champions League semi-finals with Tottenham was a dream," Spurs coach Mauricio Pochettino told reporters at the club's training complex north of London on Monday. 

The influence of the Argentine coach at Tottenham cannot be understated, Spurs have traditionally been regarded one of the Premier League's 'big six', but in his time with the north London outfit, the former Espanyol manager has taken a team generally considerad by many as also-rans to becoming a team of genuine contenders with his Tottenham side finishing in a top 3 place in the Premier League for the past three campaigns.

Much has been said of the Argentine manager's ability to "bring players through" and testament to this has been the high presence of Spurs players in the 2018 Russia World Cup semi-finals, more than any other club in world football.

New home

Many have suggested that Pochettino has been unable to progress, being hamstrung financially and unable to acquire key personnel with the club avoiding spending in the previous two transfer windows, preferring to see investment in their brand new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. The state of the art, 62,000 capacity arena finally opened its doors for business after a number of delays.

Infinity and beyond

With the Argentine committing to the club on a five-year deal last May the new ground finally up and running, and an expectation to see funding available next summer, Tottenham find themselves on the cusp of European glory. Two UEFA Cups and one European Cup Winners Cup are the sum of the club's continental trophy haul to date, but Pochettino and Spurs are just three games away from claiming their first silverware in a decade. As the Argentine maintains: "When you dream you must dream with the moon. You have to set your dreams at infinity and beyond."