Spurs don’t like the easy way. This was a team that barely made out of a group that contained Barcelona, Inter Milan, and PSV Eindhoven. They had a solitary point after three games at the group stage, and escaped their group by the finest of margins to then scrape past the quarter finals against Manchester City on away goals. But, there they are- setting up an all English Champions League final showdown against Liverpool at the Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid after overcoming the exuberant Ajax side on again, the away goals rule. The ‘away goals rule’ is this- the winner of a match over two legs, in case of a tie, is decided by the team that scores more goals away from home. The Champions League this season continues to follow some sort of twisted plot line wherein the viewers are led to believe something only for it to unravel in their faces at crucial moments, like a script writer chuckling to himself and taking perverse glee in watching his audience squirm and come to terms with the revelations at the end of the plot.
It was five minutes into the second leg of this Champions League semi final at the Johan Cruyff Arena when Matthijs de Ligt skipped away from his marker and then rose to place a neat header into Hugo Lloris’ far post. Lasse Schone had swerved in a corner from the right that de Ligt connected with perfectly. Ajax were 2-0 up in the tie now and with that crucial away goal they scored at the new White Hart Lane, this had all the makings of a tie that could have only gone one way. Ajax had started off where they left in North London. Their quick passing triangles, the pressing from the front, and their defense winning balls high up the pitch all combining together to push back Spurs into their own half. Victor Wanyama looked ragged and was pulled around, chasing shadows. Wanyama had a torrid time in the first leg too, where with the technical quality and passing in short spaces that Ajax were executing around him, he looked dazed and confused as the game seemed to be played around him; it was more of the same here. In fairness, Wanyama has only recently been getting minutes after a long absence due to injury and Pochettino has been quick to introduce him into the line up because of the length of his injury list at times. Moussa Sissoko, the other defensively minded midfielder, was reduced to hacking away at Ajax players in a desperate attempt to squeeze themselves into the game which seemed to be passing them by. Ajax had made two changes from the first leg- Kasper Dolberg was furthest forward in the line, with Dusan Tadic and Hakim Ziyech either side of him, and Donny Van de Beek, Frenkie de Jong, and Lasse Schone making up the midfield. Noussair Mazraoui started at right back instead of Joel Veltman as the only change in that back four from the first leg.
Tadic and Ziyech were exceptional on the night- their speed of thought and execution leaving the Spurs back line frequently on the defensive and the duo’s movement generating spaces to run behind the full backs Trippier and Rose. Their combination had yielded multiple chances for Ajax before they put away their second goal of the night that owed as much to the industry and vision of Tadic as the calmness and accuracy of Ziyech. Tadic had done much of the work in getting the ball into the Spurs box and laid it perfectly for Ziyech to send in a rasping shot to Lloris’ far post. Spurs were 2-0 down on the night and 3-0 behind on aggregate. Impossible? Mauricio Pochettino, despite seeing his team struggle in the first half against a gutsy Ajax side that looked like they weren’t done, certainly didn’t seem to think so. Like his compatriot Diego Simeone, the Atletico Madrid manager, Pochettino is made of sterner stuff and his managerial nous is as much about tactics and shapes as it is about an unwavering belief in the power of the collective to shift the goal posts when it comes to what is considered ‘possible’. In came Fernando Llorente at Wanyama’s expense. The Spaniard is far from the player who used to terrorize defenses at the Basque outfit Athletic Bilbao in his prime, with his best years seemingly behind him, but his ability to cause some disruption in the opposition back line by virtue of his physicality and hold up play is something that still survives in his arsenal. It was a bold move alright, taking off one of your midfielders and replacing him with an attacker when your team has had lack of control in the middle, but at 3-0 down, this was Pochettino going all in. He needed three goals from his team, and it couldn’t get any worse than what it already was.
Spurs began to push back and play Ajax in their own half for the first time in the tie. It had taken them 135 mins of football to do so, but better late than never. Llorente was hugely influential in that phase where he held the ball well and shielded it from the Ajax center halves to then lay it into Dele Alli, Lucas Moura, and Son Heung-Min. Christian Eriksen began to find more space to operate from, and pick out those fast quick runners to either side of him or to ping in a ball into the Ajax box to have Llorente knock it down and cause havoc in the Ajax defense. Ajax had a healthy lead to sit on and they probably thought they could just absorb the pressure and wait to hit back. Danny Rose played in a long diagonal ball from the left to Moura on the right, who then knocked it back for Son and continued his run through the middle into the Ajax box. Son picked him out perfectly and he took the ball in his stride before calmly finishing it past a sprawling Onana. Three perfect passes had unlocked Ajax for the first time in the tie. If anyone had missed how it panned out, the second one for Spurs had more or less the same suspects combining. Rose, this time, found himself deep into the Ajax half with the home team sitting back. He picked out Son with a long pass who laid it off neatly into the right where Trippier was positioned. Trippier sent in a pass with his first touch and found Llorente in the box who just needed to get something on the ball to send it into the net, but a brilliant Onana was in his way saving at point blank range. Onana’s mistake, however, was not getting his hands on the subsequent bounce which resulted in the ball being snatched away by Lucas Moura’s scampering feet. Moura had much to do at this point, being surrounded by some of his own players amidst those of Ajax, and no clear target to goal. The shot that he eventually released, on his left foot and on the turn, was surprisingly accurate and flew past everyone into goal. For the first time in the tie, Spurs actually looked like a team that wanted to be there in the finals.
Ajax finally seemed to sense that not all was right with the proceedings and that Spurs now had more away goals than them, with a single goal from Spurs capable of sending them crashing out of the competition. As Spurs pushed higher, Ajax hit them on some precise counters. Twice, Ziyech found himself in positions where he should have scored and put the tie to bed but luck seemed to evade him. One of his shots came off the post to collective groan from the home supporters. They knew the margins had shrunk in a space of 15 mins, and the fact that so much had happened in so little a time had made them uneasy. The match had suddenly turned wild. Jan Vertonghen had one of the best chances on the night to put Spurs at ease following a corner that Son had earned. Eriksen curled in a corner that came off Llorente’s shoulder first and a leaping Vertonghen headed it back from six yards only for the ball to come off the post. Vertonghen was alive to the rebound and struck it on target only for Veltman to clear it off the line! As the game stretched into extra time, Spurs and Ajax threw everything they had into those final moments. Sissoko hacked a ball clear into somewhere he roughly knew was Ajax territory, but it found Llorente, who in turn slipped it to Alli just outside the box. Alli found a Moura shaped figure run past his left and laid the ball onto his path. Moura scored the third of his night with his left foot that left Ajax players face down on the turf with a mix of exhaustion and disbelief. The depths to which Spurs had fallen and the crest which Ajax were riding till half time at Amsterdam stood completely reversed now. This is what this competition can throw up. Ajax will certainly feel hard done by. It’s hard not to when you’re a team that’s not just bought, but built, step by step, with the academy recruits of their brilliant youth system playing as one single unit all in sync with each other. For 90 minutes at Spurs’ home stadium and 45 minutes here, they looked by far the better team, pulling Spurs into all kinds of shapes and sizes with the quickness of their feet and head. The next 45 minutes they had to withstand, and this is an area where a lot of teams come undone, especially faced against a team that plays with the mentality that Spurs did in the second half.
Mauricio Pochettino was in tears. It’s probably the first time in his stint as the Spurs manager that he has let the raw emotion just flow and there couldn’t have been a better occasion. Spurs haven’t had a better occasion. ‘Superheroes’ was the term he used for his players, as he collected himself with the sheer bedlam around. He had steered Spurs successfully through a season that could have easily disintegrated because of multiple fracture points. The construction of their new stadium, lack of activity in the transfer market when nearly every competitor had strengthened with big money buys, the long term injury to their most effective attacker Harry Kane, the grueling premier league season where they were at one point tailing behind Manchester City and Liverpool only for them to lose their way and battle it with others for the top four. The collective strain on his team was massive and they had carried all of that on their back. He had squeezed something out of them in the space of that 45 minutes where they did their best impression of the Liverpool side who had just seen off Barcelona barely 24 hours earlier. They had gone into this tie as favorites, and played like underdogs, only for them to again rediscover their talents and tap into the reserves of mental toughness and grit that are features that best embody their manager.
It’s a special feeling for Spurs fans, as they haven’t found themselves here for a long time. The monikers that have usually stuck with them over the years don’t make for particularly great reading considering that most of them have to do with their inability to perform when needed or the inability to win anything to show for all the work. It’s the sort of tag that modern football is famous for distributing, and usually has little meaning if examined closely. This was anything but that though, and they did this on the grandest of stages against a team that made short work of Juventus and Real Madrid. They did this with their best goalscorer sitting in the crowd nursing an injury. Above all, they did this with a mentality that can sometimes put the best of opposition tactics to stern tests- the force of will and sheer over-my-dead-body single mindedness.