And, breathe. The Champions League clearly spares no thought for the millions of palpitations their product provokes across the globe. For football fans, the last couple of nights have taken their toll. But would you have it any other way?
Wednesday night’s action ended with Mauricio Pochettino in tears but those water works were precipitated by an overwhelming emotion as his Tottenham side pulled off an incredible second-half comeback to beat Ajax 2-3 in Amsterdam – levelling the tie 3-3 on aggregate – and advance to the final in Madrid on away goals, where Liverpool await.
So many stars shone bright on the night but none more so than Lucas Moura whose fairytale hat-trick stole the show and the dream final appearance Ajax had seemed destined for at half-time, or even as early as the fifth minute when some slack defending allowed Matthijs de Ligt to head home from a corner.
Several flowing Ajax moves later, Hakim Ziyech applied the finishing touch to Dusan Tadic’s pass, steering the ball past Hugo Lloris and inside the far post with 35 minutes played.
Moura’s quickfire brace early in the second half – in the 55th and 59th minutes – meant the tie was suddenly finely poised. The encounter descended into beautiful mayhem as both sides exchanged blows as full-time approached, but Moura was able to land the decisive one in the fifth minute of stoppage time, flooring Spurs’ worthy opponents.
SPURS START SLOW, THEN GROW
Tottenham did themselves no favours by beginning the second leg much like they did the first, not with respect to their formation – Pochettino certainly learned his lesson in that regard. This time, there was no three-man defence in place but the mentality was a familiar and fundamental stumbling block.
Conceding the early goal aside, it was their tedious build-up play which disappointed, especially after the problems they caused Ajax in the closing stages during the encounter in north London after deciding to adopt a more direct approach.
Instead, their efforts to play out from the back against Ajax’s aggressive high-press did them more harm than good. The hosts were able to create enticing opportunities for themselves in the many transitions they were afforded while rarely being stretched in keeping Spurs at bay.
Pochettino switched strategies at half-time with Fernando Llorente, a focal point in attack, introduced for the holding midfielder Victor Wanyama. The impact was indisputable and immediate.
The visitors stopped trying to pass their way out and beat Ajax at their own game. With the big Spanish striker capable of holding up play and taking focus away from the forward runners around him, Spurs were able to play quick, vertical passes and put Ajax under pressure.
That pressure was sustainable due to the fact that Llorente’s aerial threat meant they had the option to launch balls into the box when more attractive avenues to goal were not forthcoming. It made for a pulsating second half and an exhilarating finish.
NOT JUST A DE LIGT TO WATCH
Five minutes in and De Ligt was on the spot to power home his header and potentially grab headlines yet again. He’s just one of the many outstanding talents in this Ajax side who live to thrill, but it’s not just their delightful brand of football that draws admiration.
Yes, their slick passing and movement creates pretty triangles all over the pitch but that’s only half of what makes them such a formidable force. It’s the other half that Spurs had just as much difficulty coping with.
The kind of intense press that the Dutch side exerts comes from vast energy reserves and a singular desire across the team. The determination to work for each other is incredible and will continue to hold them in good stead.
There was also an air of confidence that seems strange for such a young and inexperienced side, yet is worn so naturally by Ajax. They were fearless going into the encounter, composed in their approach and, on occasion, audacious in their efforts.
Even when Spurs threw caution to the wind and delivered a fierce second-half display, the hosts weren’t completely overrun. For a side brimming with players whose careers are still in their infancy, adopting a fetal position after a quick and painful double jab from Moura over four minutes would’ve been understandable.
But they showed they can take a punch and then throw a few of their own. Ziyech probably had the best of the chances they continued to create, skewing Tadic’s ball agonisingly wide before striking the upright with a low drilled effort.
A lethal final blow from Moura cost them what was a well-contested bout, but they showed immense character and, unlike Barcelona on the previous night, went down swinging.
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