What has characterized Ajax this season, what carried Erik ten Hag’s team past Real Madrid in the round of 16 and Juventus in the quarterfinals, is fearlessness. Ajax has not been cowed by its opponents’ reputations. It has not been discouraged by a comparative dearth of experience. It has refused to succumb to conventional wisdom, that a team from a lesser league and paid lesser wages must automatically shrink into its shell to have any hope of surviving. It has trusted its instincts, imposed its own beliefs on the most illustrious opposition, and thrived.
By the standards of the teams it has beaten, this was, paradoxically, the least of its challenges. Tottenham, at full strength, is a fearsome proposition, one perhaps not quite as redolent of European glory as either Real Madrid or Juventus, but a modern powerhouse all the same. Spurs was, though, some way short of full strength, stripped not only of Harry Kane but Son Heung-min, its other rapier threat, and running on fumes in midfield.
The test was the stage. Ajax, for the first time in this Champions League run, started a game as the favorite. The thousands of boisterous fans who had traveled from Amsterdam, who had packed the trains and the buses and the tubes on the way to north London, might not have expected to be here at the start of the season.
They might, in time, be willing to see a semifinal as a remarkable success, but here and now, with a place in the final within their grasp, with only a decimated Spurs team standing in their way? Expectations might, understandably, have been revised a little in the spring sunshine.
There is a pressure in having nothing to lose, in trying to achieve the impossible, to overturn the odds. There is a very different sort of pressure in having to live up to the lofty standards you have set, to do justice to a legacy that has only just been created, to be the version of yourself that people believe you to be. That was the pressure that might have derailed Ajax, that might have caused de Jong and his young teammates to second-guess themselves, that might have brought a stutter to their rhythm.