Tottenham are Champions League finalists. Five words that can’t possibly do justice to the maelstrom of drama and intrigue, of twists and scrapes that culminated in one of the most dramatic finishes of them all. The five minutes of injury time were up as Lucas Moura sprinted into the Ajax penalty area in pursuit of Dele Alli’s flick. The last rites had been administered. Hugo Lloris had jogged up for a corner, and jogged back. Tottenham’s quest for a first European Cup final appeared doomed to heroic failure.
But Lucas had other ideas. As the seconds leaked away, he delved deep within him, found a few last fumes of power, and surged ahead of Daley Blind to meet the ball with his left foot. The finish was low, and weak, but perfectly placed. The Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana will relive those couple of seconds for the rest of his life. They all will. It was the moment when a brave and brilliant Ajax side, their best in a generation, saw their dreams of European glory cruelly, brutally demolished.
For Tottenham, joy unconfined, and not a few tears. Substitutes raced onto the pitch. Coaching staff raced onto the pitch. The little pocket of fans in the top corner of the stadium clutched each other as if they would never let go.
The glory will go to Lucas, whose hat-trick was one of the great Champions League semi-final performances. But the plaudits should go to all, and above all manager Mauricio Pochettino, who at half-time in this match somehow inspired one final gargantuan effort, which produced three goals and the club’s greatest night of the colour television era.
On a chilly May night in Amsterdam, Tottenham’s European dreams hung by a thread. Two-nil down at half-time, three-nil down on aggregate, they had been outrun and outgunned, another of the biggest prizes eluding their grasp just as they began to scent it. There was no thought whatsoever of a reverse to rival Liverpool’s on Tuesday night. But somehow, improbably, the Premier League’s two comeback kings will meet in Madrid on June 1.
Ajax dominated large sections of the 180 minutes of this tie, and against about as flawed a side as you can realistically expect to face at this side of the competition, looked good value for their first Champions League final in more than two decades. But the closer it got, the harder they seemed to grasp at it. In defence, they dropped deeper, trying to thwart Tottenham but instead offering only encouragement. In attack, chances came and went agonisingly begging. It will take them months – years – to get over this. Perhaps they never will.
It was harsh on their terrific young stars, the likes of Frenkie de Jong, Hakim Ziyech and Matthijs de Ligt, who scored the opening goal after four minutes and then tried desperately to shore up an Ajax defence beginning to creak under the weight of pressure and expectation on it. De Ligt deserved better. In a way, Ajax deserved better. Instead, they received perhaps the harshest lesson sport has to bestow: that a game is never won until its very final moments. Ajax had the lightning. But in the end, Tottenham had the bottle.
Who could have predicted such a scenario when de Ligt put Ajax 1-0 up early on, giving Ajax control of the tie? Leaving Kieran Trippier standing and rising above Dele to head the ball past Lloris, it was the start of a first half in which Ajax made Tottenham – who are not an old and slow team – look old and slow. There were times when Spurs had no answer to their pure speed: of movement, of thought, of foot.
The bad news for Tottenham was that they now needed to score two, against a team who had never lost a Champions League game after going ahead, a record stretching back 49 matches. The good news was that unlike in the first leg, they were creating plenty of opportunities of their own. Son Heung-Min hit the post from a tight angle. Dele was tackled on the edge of the area with Lucas unmarked outside him. For around 10 minutes after conceding, Tottenham played some of their best football of the tie.
But it didn’t take long for Ajax to reassert themselves. For most of the rest of the half they succeeded in hemming Tottenham deep into their own territory, into a perpetual nightmare of endless throw-ins, endless long balls up the line, endless cycles of meaningless possession. And when they invariably won the ball back, releasing their forwards into the channels, it was rare for a chance not to result. First Dusan Tadic swung a shot across Lloris’s goal. Then, with nine minutes to go until the break, he won the ball ahead of the wretched Trippier and cut the ball back to Ziyech, whose left-footed finish was emphatic, unstoppable, brilliant.
And that, so it seemed, was that. Except there’s a strange elasticity to this Tottenham side: you can squeeze them, you can crush them in your fist, but they have a habit of recovering their shape. Ajax had begun to sit deep, inviting Tottenham to break them down. Except this was a game Tottenham were more than familiar with from the Premier League. Just as in the first leg, Ajax’s increasing passivity allowed Spurs a way back into the game. The difference this time was Spurs took their chances.
The warning signs were there for Ajax long before Lucas coolly tapped the ball past Onana to finish a superb Tottenham counter-attack. Minutes later, and with the ball barely having visited the Spurs half in the meantime, Trippier put the ball across, substitute Fernando Llorente missed from six yards – obviously – and in the confusion Onana fumbled the loose ball. Lucas gathered it, and with a wriggle and a squirm and impossibly quick feet, buried it into the corner, stunning the Ajax fans into silence. It had taken them more than two-and-a-half hours for Tottenham to register their first goal in the tie. Now they had two in four minutes. And a lifeline.
Ajax realised they couldn’t see out the game by absorbing pressure. Now they began to open up, Ziyech putting the ball agonisingly wide from 12 yards, and then hitting the post with 12 minutes left. De Ligt bravely charged down Lucas’s shot and then furiously upbraided his colleagues for forcing him to do so. With four minutes remaining, it fell to Jan Vertonghen – of all people – to win the tie for Tottenham from five yards, not once but twice. Both efforts, one with his head and one with his foot, were cleared off the line.
What did Tottenham have left? Barely any running in their legs. Just the sheer willpower of a team who had come too far together to give it anything less than their all. And so when the ball was again played into Dele, with time running out, perhaps the only people who still believed it was on were the 11 men in Tottenham green, a team about to go on the adventure of their lives.
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