Spurs' dramatic comeback at Ajax fitting amid season of Champions League close calls
AMSTERDAM -- So Tottenham continue to be football's nearly men, all the way to the Champions League final in Madrid, after completing the competition's most dramatic fightback in 24 hours.
Liverpool one night, Tottenham the next. The Premier League is the gift that keeps giving in the Champions League, and debate will now rage as to which club mounted the more incredible comeback to reach next month's final in Madrid.
A 4-0 home win against Barcelona to win 4-3 on aggregate takes some beating, but Spurs certainly matched Liverpool's feat for drama by leaving Ajax's brave young team floored with three second-half goals Wednesday in Amsterdam -- all three from Brazilian forward Lucas Moura -- with the last coming in the dying seconds of stoppage time to secure a 3-2 victory on the night.
It reduced Mauricio Pochettino to tears, with the Spurs manager struggling to describe the feeling of guiding the club to their first Champions League final.
"It is difficult with words to describe my emotion," he said. "It is one of the most important nights in my life. Thank you to football. My players are heroes; in the last year I was telling everyone this group are heroes.
"To go to the Champions League final is nothing short of a miracle."
Erik ten Hag's Ajax players were also in tears, but they were devastated, throwing themselves to the floor after Moura netted the winner. Tears flowed on the pitch while beer was thrown in the stands by stunned supporters -- this report has been written on a laptop doused twice by flying Heineken -- who had been seconds away from booking their dream trip to the Spanish capital.
But Spurs have made a habit of nearly going out of the Champions League this season before pulling themselves back from the brink. Four times this term, Pochettino's team have nearly been knocked out of the Champions League. Against PSV Eindhoven, Inter Milan and Barcelona in the group stage, they were minutes from elimination until being saved by a late goal on each occasion. And against Manchester City in the quarterfinal second leg last month, Spurs were as good as out, with Pep Guardiola racing down the touchline to celebrate Raheem Sterling's stoppage-time winner, until VAR threw the Londoners an incredible, dramatic lifeline by cancelling it out to send them into the semifinals.
But trailing 2-0 on the night to this vibrant, fearless Ajax, and 3-0 on aggregate, Moura's second-half hat trick sealed a remarkable fightback that earned a victory on the away-goals rule. Nearly out? You bet, but this team never knows when it is beaten, and the North London club are now on a collision course with Liverpool, another side who will believe their name is on the trophy, when they meet in Madrid's Wanda Metropolitano Stadium on June 1.
Spurs arrived in the Dutch capital with a challenge ahead of them, following last week's 1-0 first-leg defeat in London, but it was by no means insurmountable. Yet Pochettino and his players watched the drama unfold at Anfield, and defender Danny Rose admitted after this game that Liverpool's victory provided crucial inspiration.
"We saw Liverpool last night and it goes to show that it's not over until it's over," Rose said. "And [Pochettino] mentioned Liverpool's display at the hotel before the match."
But Pochettino's words seemed to barely register as Spurs started terribly, falling behind 2-0 inside 36 minutes following Matthijs de Ligt's fourth-minute header and Hakim Ziyech's left-footed strike.
Spurs now had to score three to turn the tie around, and they could not turn to the talismanic qualities of leading goal scorer Harry Kane, who was in the stands nursing an ankle injury. Instead, Pochettino threw on striker Fernando Llorente in place of midfielder Victor Wanyama and the Spaniard turned the game, with his physical presence unsettling De Ligt and Daley Blind.
Spurs also had Dele Alli, who rose to the occasion after a disappointing season to drive Spurs on. The England midfielder's break forward was the key to Moura's first goal, on 55 minutes, which gave Tottenham hope. Four minutes later, hope became belief when Moura did it again, scoring after he displayed trickery and coolness amid chaos in the penalty area with a left-footed shot that was placed into the corner of the net.
Ajax, so impressive in beating Real Madrid and Juventus to reach this stage, now looked exactly what they are: a young team lacking nous and experience at the highest level. They took too many risks going forward and played too much football at the back. It was pure football, in the Ajax way, but this was a Champions League semifinal and it was not the time or place for novices.
Yet Spurs saw chances go begging and they struggled to take advantage. Thoughts turned to what Liverpool would do to this Ajax team, and it would not be pretty for the Dutch outfit -- they would be torn apart by a ruthless attacking machine.
Spurs are not quite that, and their record in semifinals under Pochettino -- three defeats in four prior to this tie -- highlighted their own shortcomings. And their inability to finish Ajax off almost led to their downfall, with Ziyech hitting the post on 79 minutes. When Jan Vertonghen was denied by the crossbar and a goal-line clearance on 87 minutes, it was surely a sign that Tottenham's game was up.
But they continued to push, and Ajax foolishly chased another goal rather than killing off the game, and it seemed inevitable that Pochettino's team would get one last chance. And so it proved, deep into stoppage time, when Moura punished a Blind slip and latched onto Alli's pass before scoring from 18 yards.
What a night, what a week. And when Spurs meet Liverpool in the final June 1, more madness surely awaits.