We’ve seen them knock out Real Madrid, we’ve seen them knock out Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus, and Ajax are now 90 minutes away from a first Champions League final since 1996.
But where we saw a confident – even brash – team sweep away two of the grandest names in European football in previous rounds, this narrow victory over Tottenham was not so swashbuckling.
Like a promising young prize-fighter proven to have a glass jaw, Ajax had to survive on their wits at times. Their passing game was disrupted by an energetic Spurs side, who looked more at ease following the sickening collision involving Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, which necessitated replacing the former with Moussa Sissoko.
By that stage many Spurs fans might have been wondering why Mauricio Pochettino had not started with that shape if not necessarily the personnel which made up the 4-4-2 diamond after Vertonghen’s exit.
Because to that point Spurs had played into Ajax’s hands. It was as if they’d seen nothing of Europe’s most exciting pretenders since Monaco reached this stage two years ago. Frenkie de Jong was allowed to pick his head up and find passes. Hakim Ziyech was lording it in any domain he fancied. The twin threats of David Neres and Donny van de Beek had it their own way in attack.
They had a goal – a crucial away goal at that – which was well deserved. Van de Beek’s neat turn and shot from Ziyech’s through ball showed him as the calmest man inside the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
It could have been two on at least a couple of occasions after. Spurs had no grip on their opponents, looked plotless on the break, and suffered at the hands of superior energy and ideas.
Late on – after the Spurs onslaught – they survived one more scare when Neres hit the post off a Dusan Tadic assist.
Ajax by that stage were made to survive a substantial Tottenham storm. The English team came in waves, time and again. And if in truth they created little in the way of clear-cut chances, they nonetheless made Ajax play in an unfamiliar way. They tested this inexperienced team in a way they hadn’t been tested in the knockouts to this point.
Spurs brought plenty of the discipline and urgency which helped in the first leg against Manchester City. They belatedly made use of their wide players Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier. Dele Alli occupied pockets of space, Christian Eriksen roved.
But there remained a bluntness in the makeshift strike partnership of Lucas Moura and Fernando Llorente. The Brazilian edged into Ajax territory with an occasional dribble. Llorente aimed a few headers on the roof of Andre Onana’s goal.
The Cameroon international made a villain of himself in the eyes of the Spurs fans, lingering every time the ball was in-hand or while waiting to take a goal kick. The noise stays in at this place, and Onana would have felt every boo and shout.
But he never wavered in the cauldron; he continued to claim the high balls that eluded Matthijs De Ligt and Daley Blind and give breathing space to his team-mates.
They needed it. Ajax were constricted; they didn’t blow Spurs away as they have done to other, more experienced European sides.
And with Spurs severely depleted, some on Erik Ten Hag’s technical staff might wonder if this will be enough. Only one of the 17 previous teams to lose the first leg at home in a European Cup/Champions League semi-final tie has progressed into the final – coincidentally Ajax in 1996 – but here they were agitated, jostled and knocked out of their stride.
With Son Heung-min and – possibly – Harry Kane to return, Spurs will not be fearing their trip to the Amsterdam Arena next week.
There is work to be done for Ajax and they will need to recover their composure.
Europe’s darlings they may be, but they are being made to sweat to pass Spurs.