By Andrew Warshaw
May 9 – Never in the modern era of European football’s greatest club competition have there been two back-to-back semi-finals quite like it.
Just as the euphoria surrounding Liverpool’s miraculous win over Barcelona on Tuesday began to die down, so Tottenham Hotspur carved their own place in the annals of the game 24 hours later with one of the most memorable nights in their history to set up an all-English Champions League final on June 1 in Madrid.
Just as Liverpool pulled off the seemingly impossible to wipe out a three-goal first leg deficit lead against Barcelona, so Tottenham – beaten 1-0 at home by Ajax in the first leg – came from two goals down in the return leg to win 3-2 and advance on away goals to their first ever Champions League final on a pulsating and emotional night in Amsterdam.
Ajax skipper Matthijs de Ligt’s fifth-minute header and a superb strike by Hakim Ziyech put the Dutch 3-0 ahead on aggregate by halftime, and seemingly out of sight, at a raucous Johan Cruyff Arena.
But Tottenham, a club with a notoriously poor semi-final record who for years have clung to memories of past glories but who have been transformed in recent seasons under manager Mauricio Pochettino, looked a different team after the break.
Brazilian striker Lucas Moura, who also scored the goal in Barcelona in the final group game to keep Tottenham alive in the competition, was again the hero with a last-gasp stoppage-time winner to complete a sensational hat-trick and shatter the dreams of Ajax’s vibrant young side who had looked certain to reach their first final for 23 years.
Tottenham’s only other European Cup semi-final came 57 years ago when they lost to Benfica and their improbable victory left the 3,000 away fans in a state of delirium and Pochettino in floods of tears at the end, his team having seemed dead and buried.
“I think it’s one of the most important nights in my life,” Pochettino, who joined Tottenham in 2014 and is on the verge of sealing a fourth successive top-four domestic finish, told reporters after recovering his composure.
“To get the club to the final of the Champions League I think is very close to a miracle. No one believed in us from the start of the season. My players are heroes – in the last year I was telling everyone this group are heroes. They are all heroes but Lucas Moura was a superhero.”
His opposite number Erik Ten Hag, whose side had knocked out Real Madrid and Juventus, could not contain his anguish.
“Football can be very beautiful and it can be very cruel, we have had to experience that today,” he said. “Overall we had a fantastic Champions League campaign, we were one second away from the final, our team deserves a very big compliment, I am very proud of my players.”
Tottenham became the eighth English club to reach European football’s showpiece final but to put their achievement into perspective, they did not make a single signing in either of the last two transfer windows with critics warning it would come back to haunt them since the other so-called big six English clubs had spent big.
They were also without their injured talisman Harry Kane who went into the dressing room at halftime to speak his mind. “It was a disappointing first half and we let them play. We knew it wasn’t good enough,” said Kane, still recovering from a damaged ankle.
Despite his injury, Kane rushed on to the pitch to celebrate with his team mates, the Tottenham staff – including chairman Daniel Levy – and the Spurs travelling faithful at the final whistle, and could now even possibly return for the biggest game in his and the club’s history.
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