Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 November 2019

Martin Jol: Tottenham v Ajax in the Champions League is a 'beautiful coincidence'

The Dutchman, who has managed both clubs, gives his thoughts on the semi-final match-up and why he is hoping for a Spurs success

Martin Jol has admitted he is rooting for Tottenham over Ajax when the two sides he has previously managed meet. REX Shutterstock
Martin Jol has admitted he is rooting for Tottenham over Ajax when the two sides he has previously managed meet. REX Shutterstock

As the only man to manage both Tottenham Hotspur and Ajax, Martin Jol is well placed to offer his thoughts on the upcoming Uefa Champions League semi-final between the two.

Not that he really expected the match-up to happen.

“A beautiful coincidence,” says the Dutchman from his home in the Netherlands. “A fact that was unthinkable a couple of months ago.

"Of course, Spurs are playing in the Champions League for the third time in a row, but if you would have told me a month ago that they would eliminate a club of the stature of Manchester City, I would have said: ‘No way!’

“Ajax are even more a surprise. Because they had to beat teams with aspirations to win the Champions League, and they did that in very good style.”

The Ajax style has been a highlight of this season’s Champions League. En route to the two-legged semi-final with Spurs – the first of which takes place in London on Tuesday – the Dutch side defeated Real Madrid, winners of the trophy the past three seasons, 4-1 at the Bernabeu before seeing off Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus in the quarter-finals, winning 2-1 in Turin to seal a 3-2 aggregate victory.

Seeking a first European Cup since 1995, the four-time champions have reached the last four of Europe’s premier club competition for the first time in 22 years.

In doing so, they have won many admirers, playing with a freedom and a finesse, allying the bold enterprise of youth headlined by 19-year-old captain Matthijs de Ligt, 21-year-old Frenkie de Jong and 22-year-old Donny van de Beek with experience in Lasse Schone, Daley Blind, Dusan Tadic and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.

Manager of the Amsterdam club for 18 months between 2009 and 2010, Jol knows well what it has taken to carry them this far. He describes Hakim Ziyech as Ajax's "most important player and engine of the team”, while he has been impressed with “complete left-back” Nicolas Tagliafico. Andre Onana, he adds, is “one of the best young goalkeepers in the world”.

There is no surprise, though, whom Jol rates as the side’s standouts.

“Outstanding players for me are Frenkie de Jong, who has been sold for €75 million (Dh307.3m) to Barcelona and is Holland’s best player and talent since the arrival of Arjen Robben in Dutch football 20 years ago,” he says.

“De Jong is making Ajax tick in their style of dominating the ball in midfield from the back to the forward players.

“Matthijs de Ligt is a very good defender who is already scoring headers for fun at set-pieces; a great talent who is destined to go to an elite club in Europe. Hakim Ziyech is the second-best player in our Eredivisie, who will be probably a good candidate for player of the year in Holland for a second time in a row.

“Dusan Tadic is the other outstanding player in the red and white of Ajax this year. In European games he plays as a ‘false nine’ and is very difficult to handle for the opponents in the way he plays.”

That much is reflected in Tadic’s stats for the season: 34 goals, 21 assists from 51 matches. He represents another endorsement of manager Eric ten Hag’s coaching, although the Serb constitutes a slight departure to the “Ajax way”, too.

Typically relying on their own development of players, Tadic - an €11m transfer from Southampton - was one of a number of recruits last summer.

“Ajax lives by the development of young players from their own academy,” Jol says.

“But of course, the change in thinking not to stick to Johan Cruyff’s philosophy of only growing and making your own players, but buying some older players as well, did Ajax the world of good. So Ajax spent more than €50m over the last 12 months.

“Together with their style to dominate the ball in midfield and defend on the first press high up the pitch, plus the defensive stability manager Eric ten Hag brought to the team, makes them a top team in Europe.”

That said, being a top team in Europe, but not quite among the elite financially, makes success more difficult to sustain.

Look at the 1995 side, quickly broken up and traded around Europe’s most prominent clubs for significant fees. Jol, though, doesn’t believe another great exodus will damage Ajax irrevocably.

“Of course it is sustainable,” he says. “It's only a matter of buying the right players and about a great scouting team that can’t afford to get the wrong players.”

One club to benefit significantly through the years, aptly given Tuesday, is Tottenham. Amsterdam to London is a path well trodden, highlighted in Mauricio Pochettino’s current squad by Christian Eriksen, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Davidson Sanchez.

Jol managed Tottenham between 2004 and 2007, and during his time there had at his disposal former Ajax stars in Edgar Davids and Mido. At Ajax, he managed Vertonghen and Alderweireld. He gave Eriksen his debut, aged 17.

“For sure, you need a little bit of luck by bringing in players from Holland,” he says. “You need a good judge in Holland to recognise if the player is suitable for the Premier League. Don’t forget that players from smaller leagues are cheaper, which is a great advantage for the big clubs.

“Holland is a country where young players can adapt and develop because they get the opportunity to play on a regular basis. I still think Spurs missed out on my player, Luis Suarez, who was for sale and went to Liverpool for £25m, a fee that was probably a burden for them.

"The top players from Ajax now will again be too expensive for a club like Spurs. Times have changed.”

Tottenham have altered considerably since Jol's time in north London. Back then, simply qualifying for the Champions League formed the primary focus.

Infamously, a dodgy batch of lasagne put pay to Spurs' chances in 2006, when a squad struck by illness lost at West Ham United to finish fifth and miss out on a first appearance in the rebranded tournament.

It was one of consecutive fifth-placed finishes with Jol at the helm - Spurs' best finish in the English top flight since 1990. Now, though, Pochettino has them on course for a fourth successive season in the Champions League.

With two matches remaining, Spurs sit third in the Premier League. On Tuesday, they contest a first European Cup semi-final in 57 years having emerged earlier this month from an epic clash with City.

“I’m proud to see Spurs in the Champions League and making the fans happy,” Jol says. “Poch is a big manager who made them one of the best teams in the Premier League; Christian Eriksen is their most influential player. They are all quality players and belong among the best in their position in the Premier League.”

Form and fitness issues, however, have hit Spurs hard. For Ajax on Tuesday, Pochettino will be without a raft of important players, such as Harry Kane and Harry Winks. Moussa Sissoko looks likely to be ruled out with injury; Son Heung-min is already unavailable through suspension.

“I feel very worried for Spurs without Sissoko, Winks, Son, Kane,” Jol says. “This could be very relevant in the end to go to the final. If Ajax get a result at Spurs they’ve got a great chance of going through to the final considering Spurs' loss of form and injury problems.”

Yet, even as the only manager of both clubs, and hailing from The Hague, Jol wants only one winner.

“In my heart I hope that Spurs will go to the final because I know how much the Spurs fans long for ultimate success,” he said.

“Don’t forget that I was a Spurs fan since I was 10 and told people in Holland at the start of my career on television that my dream was to go to the other side of the big North Sea and be a manager or coach in the world’s biggest league. And preferably Tottenham Hotspur FC. Can you imagine?”

Updated: April 30, 2019 09:12 AM

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