KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Tottenham Hotspur produced a second utterly remarkable English performance in Europe to turn an impending defeat by Ajax into a staggering victory which fired them into a Champions League Final against Liverpool in Madrid on June 1.
Spurs were 1-0 down from the first leg of their semi-final in North London last week and drifted even closer to elimination when Ajax struck twice in the first half in the Johan Cruyff Arena to goals from Matthijs de Ligt and Hakim Ziyech.
Ten minutes into the second half Brazilian forward Lucas Moura pulled one goal back. Four minutes later he struck again. Then, when the match had run beyond the signalled five minutes of stoppage time, Moura somehow squeezed a low angled shot beyond the outstretched hand of keeper Andre Onana to complete both Spurs’ sensational victory and his own hat-trick.
If anything, the match was even more dramatic than both Liverpool’s 4-0 flooring of Barcelona the night before and Tottenham’s own ousting of Manchester City in the quarter-finals.
Manager Mauricio Pochettino broke down in tears of both joy and disbelief as he celebrated with his players, staff and travelling supporters at the final whistle.
Spurs had suffered the worst possible start in conceding a goal as early as the fifth minute when Ajax skipper De Ligt rose above Dele Alli to head past Hugo Lloris from a Lasse Schone cross following a corner. German referee Felix Brych signalled a VAR review but that brought Tottenham no relief.
Half an hour later things grew even worse for Tottenham when a sweeping Ajax move was climaxed by a delicate curling finish from Ziyech into the corner beyond a stranded Hugo Lloris.
Spurs brought on Fernando Llorente for the second half and created their first chance to climb back into the game in the 53rd minute when Alli’s header to a Christian Eriksen cross was well saved by Andre Onana.
That sparked a sense of renewed belief in Spurs. Moura burst through the Ajax defence on a counter-attaack to shoot low past Onana. Then, four minutes later, Spurs were level at 2-2 on the night. This time Moura produced a nimble piece of footwork to turn and score with a left-footed shot through a crowd of players.
Both sides had chances to score again in an end-to-end final 20 minutes. Ziyech hit a post for Ajax in the 79th minute and Jan Vertonghen, at the other end, headed against the bar in the 87th minute.
At this point it appeared that a rattled Ajax would manage to hold out but deep into stoppage time up popped Moura once again to seal an amazing comeback and ensure an a second all-English final after Manchester United’s shootout victory over Chelsea in Moscow in 2008. The only other all-English final in European competition was Spurs’ victory over Wolves in the 1972 UEFA Cup.
Liverpool will be favourites in the final in Atletico Madrid’s Metropolitano on June 1. They beat Tottenham twice in the Premier League this season and Spurs – the eighth different English team in the final after Arsenal, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Leeds United, Liverpool, Manchester United and Nottingham Forest – will be appearing in the final for the very first time.
For Ajax, this was a bitter end of another European era. They have two remaining fixtures in domestic competition but several of their young stars will be leaving during the summer. Remarkably, they had reached the brink of the final without winning any of their home ties in the knockout stage.
This last failure was the most painful of all.