Feature photo: Getty Images
It happened again. Yet another last minute comeback, to further embellish a Champions League edition that could arguably end up being the most exciting ever. This time, it was Tottenham’s turn to pull out the most incredible of victories, stunning Ajax with a shocking 2-3 late win that projected them straight into their first Champions League Final in their history. They will face Liverpool for the last act in Madrid in an all-English match-up.
The white-and-reds, who had taken a reassuring 2-0 lead in the first half already, saw their dreams shattered, and plummeted into a nightmare which bore the name of Lucas Moura – the author of all three Spurs’ goals. Erik ten Hag’s squad turned the lights off too soon, and probably for the first time over the course of this tournament his terrible kids paid a price for their inexperience.
Ajax continued to attack like a wounded animal even when Tottenham had rebalanced the game, their reaction induced more by fear than by a conscious strategy. In such a circumstance, an old school, Italian-style palla in tribuna (shot the ball to the stands, and let time pass…) would have proved aesthetically less appealing, but surely more effective.
And so, Mauricio Pochettino’s Lilywhites found the decisive goal at the very last breath. It was the 95th minute when Lucas Moura’s directed his all-in shot with millimetric precision, finding the right spot on Andre Onana’s right, and turning the Johan Crujiff Arena’s enthusiastic countdown into a silent gasp.
A tough beast to handle, this Tottenham side. It’s not easy to face your first Champions League Semi Final bout ever with your best striker Harry Kane ruled out by an injury. Still, Pochettino’s side proved capable of overturning an aggregate three-goal deficit in 45 minutes only, just like they had proved able to resist to Manchester City’s furious assaults at the Etihad Stadium in the Quarter Finals, losing 3-4 but still progressing on away goals after winning the first leg with a lone goal by their Korean star Seo Heung-min.
The Spurs may not be the best side seen in Europe this season, neither may their fellow countrymen from Liverpool. But both clubs showed that, once in a while, winning at the most beautiful game in the world still comes down to grit, mental fortitude, and ultimately never giving up. One thing is for sure: This all-Brit Final was mostly deserved by both the Spurs and the Reds, and a very good commercial for our good old football.
Ajax left their home pitch with the bitter awareness of having lost a once-in-a-decade chance. Their unique lineup of this season, a perfect blend of experience and young talents, is expected to be pillaged as soon as the transfer market window opens. One of the first to pack his bags may be 19-year-old captain Matthijs De Ligt, who is rumored to be on Barcelona’s radar – for a good reason, one would say, considering how the Catalans’ defense fared one day earlier against Liverpool.
De Ligt gave his supporters and early chance to be regretted already, lifting off in Tottenham’s box to convert with a header a corner kick by Lasse Schone, and put the white-and-reds ahead just five minutes into the game. Schone’s corner originated from a shot by Dusan Tadic that had called Hugo Lloris to a super save, showing that Ajax had no intention to just defend the precious lead they matured one week earlier at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
The home side didn’t hit the brake eve in view of an aggregate double advantage. It was again their Serbian number 10 to send a clear warning sign in the 29th minute, concluding a dribbling in the opponents’ area with a shot that brushed Lloris’ far post. That was just the prelude to Ajax scoring the second, which came seven minutes later at the end of a stunning combination initiated by Donny Van de Beek – another one that, at 22, has still not worn any other jersey than Ajax’s. The youth-club talent stole the ball at midfield, and opened on the left flank for Dusan Tadic, whose pass in the box was turned into an unstoppable left-foot screamer by Hakim Ziyech.
That would have had any team game, set, and match in normal circumstances. But Mauricio Pochettino didn’t seem to be wanting to hear that, and after the break he threw in the mix Fernando Llorente’s experience, replacing a confused Victor Wanyama.
Dele Alli led the charge for a revitalized Tottenham side with a shot that forced Ajax’s goalie to resort to his instinct, then one minute later participated in a swift counterattack that resulted in the Spurs reducing their gap. Alli served Lucas Moura a sharp assist, but most of the credit for Tottenham’s 1-2 goal goes to the Brazilian winger, whose impressive progression through Ajax’s defense showed exactly how bad the visitors wanted to keep fighting.
Ajax’s lead would last only four more minutes. When their defense was caught by surprise on a new Tottenham’s sortie, Andre Onana managed to push back Fernando Llorente’s shots from point-blank range twice. But right after that, the Cameroonian goalkeeper failed to keep the ball to himself, and teammate Lasse Schone didn’t help him one bit. “It’s mine,” “No, it’s mine,” and the sphere ended on Lucas Moura’s feet, for the Brazilian to take aim, and find the right spot in a congested Ajax’s area. Fact: Lucas was meant to be watching this game from the bench, had Harry Kane bean able to play…
With still 30 minutes to go, Tottenham smelled blood and saw the comeback coming, but the home side still had most of the Johan Crujiff Arena emotional support on their side. Ajax didn’t slow down. Hakim Ziyech continued to flirt with Hugo Lloris’ right post, first firing the ball just narrowly out of target, and then hitting it with a violent conclusion in the 78th minute. Between those, the Frenchman had had his share of glory, defusing two dangerous shot attempts from the home side in a row.
But on the back, something had changed for the Amsterdammers, whose defensive line was now nervous and hesitant. Pochettino went all-in as he substituted right back Kieran Trippier with a new offensive player, Roma’s meteora Erik Lamela. In the 86th minute, Jan Vertonghen’s header hit the crossbar, then Ajax managed the clear the ball away almost out of breath.
Two minutes into stoppage time, Lloris won another round of his personal battle with Ziyech, then joined his teammates for the last assault, as time run towards the five-minute extra time mark. There were five seconds left – five seconds – when Lucas Moura found again the ball on his feet, and saw the path to glory clearly ahead of him. He was faster than Captain Matthijs De Ligt, who should have pounced on that ball like a tigress to protect her cub, and hesitated one split second too much instead.
The rest is a tale of Ajax supporters catching their breath and closing their eyes, only to reopen them when the ecstatic cheering from the visitors’ stands made them realize that the nightmare had become true, and their dream of playing again a Champions League Final after 23 years had vanished.
It will be Tottenham Hotspur to play the last act, for the first time in their history. Lucas Moura took the ball home, and sent his side to Madrid, whose Wanda Metropolitano Stadium will host the Final with Liverpool on June 1st. But, gentlemen, what a great football night we all had!
May 8, 2019 – UEFA Champions League 2018-19 Semifinals
AJAX-TOTTENHAM 2-3 (Tottenham advance on away goals)
SCORERS: 5′ De Ligt (A), 35′ Ziyech (A), 55′ Lucas Moura (T), 59′ Lucas Moura (T), 95′ Lucas Moura (T)
|AJAX (4-2-3-1): Onana; Mazraoui, De Ligt, Blind, Tagliafico; Schone (60′ Veltman), De Jong; Ziyech, Van de Beek (90′ Magallan), Dolberg (67′ Sinkgraven); Tadic (Varela, de Wit, Neres, Huntelaar) Coach: ten Hag|
|TOTTENHAM (4-2-3-1): Lloris, Trippier (81′ Lamela), Vertonghen, Alderweireld, Rose (82′ Davies); Wanyama (46′ Llorente), Sissoko; Alli, Eriksen, Son Heung-min; Lucas Moura (Gazzaniga, Dier, Foyth, Sanchez, Walker-Peters) Coach: Pochettino|
REFEREE: Byrch (Germany)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Dolberg, Ziyech, Onana (A), Sissoko, Rose (T); Extra Time: 1st Half 2′, 2nd Half 5′