As the Champions League has proven, no lead is safe–not even a three-goal advantage against a short-handed and downtrodden opponent. Tottenham is going to its first Champions League final, doing so in the most dramatic of fashions.
With each passing round, we ask, what next? What can the Champions League do to match what has come before?
And with each passing game the competition delivers.
This time, Tottenham was the beneficiary. To give the bald facts is to do nothing like justice to another extraordinary European night, but here they are: Lucas Moura scored a second-half hat trick, capping it with a strike in the fifth minute of stoppage time, as Tottenham overcame a three-goal deficit to beat Ajax on the away-goals rule and reach the Champions League final for the first time in its history.
As the winner crept into the back of the net, Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino found himself on his knees on the pitch in tears. It was a goal that made the lame to walk. Davinson Sanchez, a former Ajax player, hobbled across the pitch to join the celebrations. At the final whistle, Harry Kane, ankle seemingly mended, ran onto the pitch in glee. Perhaps in terms of the achievement, winning 3-2 in Amsterdam is not the equal of a 4-0 home win over Barcelona, but in terms of emotion and drama this was at least the equal of what Liverpool had done on Tuesday.
"Thank you football. Thank you my players, they are heroes."— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) May 8, 2019
"Without football it is impossible to live."
No, thank you 🙏
Mauricio Pochettino cries during his post-match interview with @DesKellyBTS.
This means everything to him... pic.twitter.com/ArpQwwnwDH
And yet the evening had begun so disappointingly for Spurs. Who knows what Tottenham could achieve in Europe if it actually played in both halves of a game? There had been a thought that Ajax, having played with such fearless up until now, might falter with the final in sight, suddenly cast as favorite in the tie. But there was no sign of that, not early on at least. Ajax was ahead inside five minutes and seemingly had the tie wrapped up 10 minutes before halftime–but no tie is ever entirely wrapped up in this era of implausible comebacks. And that was despite the absence of David Neres, who was injured in the warm-up, forcing Erik ten Hag to rework his lineup. Dusan Tadic, who has been so impressive at center forward, moved to the left with Kasper Dolberg introduced in the middle.
Tottenham actually began far better than it had in London, but where it had chased shadows in the early moments there, desperately clinging on, here it was undone by a simple set play. Kieran Trippier, who had a nightmare first half, was mystifyingly set to mark Matthijs De Ligt and even more mystifyingly let the Ajax captain go to power in a header, with Jan Vertonghen blocked off by Donny van de Beek.
It was the seventh goal Tottenham had conceded in the first 15 minutes of a Champions League game this season–remarkably at that point it meant that 29 percent of all the goals it had conceded in this season’s competition had come in the first seven minutes of games. There has been a sense for a while that one of the things that still holds this Tottenham back is an essential sloppiness, that it has a habit of making things needlessly difficult for itself.
When Hakim Ziyech whipped in a first-time shot from Tadic’s cross after another error from Trippier, the aggregate lead was 3-0 and the tie seemed done. In the modern Champions League, though, leads are made to be overhauled.
Son Heung-min had hit a post early on as Andre Onana drifted off his line, and there were a few signs that there were defensive vulnerabilities. Spurs, in that first half, though, seemed heavy-legged as it so often has recently. Poor Victor Wanyama in particular looked wholly out of sorts, lumbering and slow, and he was removed for Fernando Llorente at halftime–at which the game changed utterly.
Ten minutes after the break, Moura fired in after a break led by Dele Alli. Four minutes later, Moura added his second, showing neat feet to work the opening after Ajax failed to clear following an astonishing reflex save from Onana to deny Llorente. Suddenly, Ajax was battling not just Spurs but a crushing sense that another comeback was written.
As Tottenham poured forward, gaps opened up. Ziyech had the chance to win it but hit the post. Hugo Lloris made three excellent saves, including one on Ziyech in stoppage timat the would've ended the tie for good. But the ball would not go in.
Then, with six minutes remaining, Jan Vertonghen headed against the bar and saw his follow-up cleared off the line. Was that the chance? Had Tottenham come so close only to be denied at the last? Pochettino took his jacket off. Time ticked by. The five minutes of injury time were up, but German referee Felix Brych added some more for Onana’s timewasting.
A long ball. A flick by Llorente. Alli, magnificent in the second half, helped it on, and there was Moura, accelerating into the box to slide his finish into the corner and crown yet another extraordinary Champions League game, setting up a final between two adversity-tested Premier League foes where no lead, certainly, will be considered safe until the final whistle is blown.