When Lucas Moura scored the winning goal in the 95th minute of an exhausting, torturous, backward, upside down match, the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam stood still in paralyzing shock. Apart from the Tottenham trainers, substitutes, coaches, and reserves streaming onto the field to celebrate, the stadium resembled a massacre of significant proportions. Ajax players threw themselves onto the ground with their faces covered and shots of grown men in tears emerged from among the extensive Ajax support. Inexplicably, Spurs had produced one of those rare sports moments in which every fan is reminded of the glory and brutality of these arbitrary competitions that still manage to control our souls like sadistic puppeteers.
If Liverpool’s victory over Barcelona shocked the football world with the strength and scope of an atomic bomb, Spurs win in Amsterdam followed like an asteroid strike. No one had time to breathe.
When the Champions League anthem rings out over the Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid on June 1st, it will serenade Tottenham and Liverpool as they prepare to play an all English final.
Ajax should have won tonight. They entered the match having secured the vital away goal in a 1-0 win in the first leg of the semifinal back in London. After a header from De Ligt and a whipped first-touch strike from Ziyech, Ajax extended their aggregate lead to 3-0. One must only ask the most distant Barcelona fan to hear how dangerous this score line can be for the winning team. Each of Ajax’s goals throughout their miraculous Champions League run has been produced – in some form – thanks to their suicidal tactic of total football. This painful and nerve-racking style of play in which all of the players bomb forward, swarming the opposition as the fluidly spin the ball throughout the pitch is the most exciting brand of football in Europe. There is little doubt that this tactic that Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff pioneered and that inspired the likes of Arrigo Sacchi and Pep Guardiola is successful. When a team is leading 3-0 in a Champions League semifinal, however, bombing down the field like Kamikazes may not be the most effective strategy.
So often throughout the match would Spurs recapture the ball and break down the field to find only two or three Ajax defenders protecting their goal. Even in the 95th minute when Ajax was just seconds from glory, they refused to throw their philosophy to the wind and park the bus.
Ajax needed an Erik Ten Hag to get them to the semifinal of the Champions League. Ajax needed a Mourinho to get them to the final.
Following half-time, Spurs clawed their way black with a relentless effort of attack that mirrored Ajax’s approach from the previous 45 minutes. Their constant press and failure to let missed opportunities cloud their heads allowed them to focus on the task at hand. One goal at a time. Perhaps their memories of their incredible performance against Manchester City in the quarterfinals spurred them to victory. Maybe they embraced the role of castaways with no legendary history in European competition.
Whatever inspired this Spurs team to win, it is sending them to their first European Cup Final. Mauricio Pochettino deserves immense credit for his ability to take this squad so far. Without any transfers in the last year and without the help of critical players who have crumbled under the chaotic exhaustion of the Premier League system, Pochettino navigated Spurs to the final of the Champions League. Pochettino’s management of Spurs should be recognized alongside Mourinho’s Porto as perhaps the greatest accomplishment of a manager in a single champions league season.
Yesterday, I wrote that football won the night. Tonight, it completed the double.