Tottenham, somehow, matched – perhaps even eclipsed – the drama of Liverpool’s thrashing of Barcelona on Tuesday as they erased a 3-0 deficit to set up an all-English Champions League final with the Reds in Madrid.
Down 1-0 from the first leg, at home, Mauricio Pochettino’s men seemed dead and buried when Ajax went 2-0 up to leave them 3-0 in front on aggregate. But a second half from the realms of pure fantasy was produced as Lucas Moura’s 95th minute goal devastated the Dutch and sent Spurs soaring.
Barcelona-bound Frenkie de Jong was at the heart of everything good Ajax did in the first half. But he was found wanting in the second half as Ajax stood toe to toe with a spirited Spurs, but had a fairytale final ripped from their grasp.
Here, we admire and also admonish the 21-year-old De Jong.
Well, if we thought the second semi-final couldn’t possibly live up to the drama of the previous night, Spurs and Ajax seemed determined to prove us wrong.
The hosts seemingly had the tie killed off by the break with a breathtaking first half display in which captain Matthijs de Ligt nodded them in front before Hakim Ziyech arched in a fine finish to leave Spurs needing a lifeline.
Step forward Moura whose rapid double set up a grandstand finish – both teams looked like titanic, teetering heavyweight boxers trading blow after blow. The hosts looked like they would hang on, but Moura came up with a stunning knockout punch to floor the deflated Dutch giants.
Goals – 0
Tackles – 5
Clearances – 4
Touches – 69
Passes – 50
Pass accuracy – 90%
Aerials won – 2
Interceptions – 1
GOT RIGHT – BUILDING BLOCK
He already seems the complete player at such an early age. His and De Ligt’s careers have barely taken off, yet their displays mask their youth. They play like seasoned pros.
De Jong zipped and flew across the pitch breaking up Spurs attacks here, sparking Ajax attacks there. He dictated Ajax’s tempo, completing 32 of 34 passes in the opening 45 alone as the Dutch giants threatened to run riot.
Whether spraying long balls, zipping passes into feet or dropping into defence to relieve pressure and break up attacks, he was conducting the choir.
GOT WRONG – FADING FORCE
As terrific as he’s been this season, exhaustion reaches every player at some point, particularly those who are still learning the game and whose bodies are still developing.
In the first 45 minutes of the 21-year-old’s 48th game of the season, he was flawless. But in the second he looked fatigued. As Spurs found their legs, his failed him as he was bypassed by Alli and Moura in the lead-up to both goals.
To fathom just how a 21-year-old can possess so much poise and elegance in defence and attack, you just need to look back to 2017 and the Europa League final. De Jong had celebrated his 19th birthday just 12 days before being named on the bench to take on Manchester United.
His ensuing development has been obscene. A substitute two years ago in Stockholm, De Jong’s first half performance had him on course to being one of the main protagonists for Ajax in the Champions League final. That privilege was cruelly robbed from him, but it surely won’t be long before he does grace one.
Twenty-four hours after the Reds’ comeback against Barcelona, Spurs were dead and buried at half-time of their semi-final second leg in Amsterdam as they trailed 3-0 on aggregate.
But Lucas Moura completed a stunning second-half hat-trick, with the third coming deep into injury time, to sends Spurs through to a first ever Champions League final and spark amazing scenes in the Johan Cryuff Arena.
Pochettino was reduced to tears after the game after performing what he called a “miracle” and they will now meet Jurgen Klopp’s side in Madrid on June 1.
The Spurs boss, who said on the eve of the game that he could leave the club if he won the competition this season, has long described his players as heroes for performing in tough circumstances this term.
But he has upgraded that description to “superheroes” as he celebrated one of his most significant nights.
“It’s difficult with words to describe my feelings and my emotions,” he said.
“I think it’s one of the most important nights in my life. How the game finished, everything that happened, the first half, how we planned to play, how the plan was down after three minutes when we conceded the goal, and I think everything was amazing.
“The most important thing I want to say is to congratulate my players. They own the football, they delivered a great job.
“For me, they are heroes. I’ve told you the last six months, I repeat this sentence.
“I think they are superheroes now. To get the club to the final of the Champions League I think is very close to a miracle.
“No one believed in us from the beginning of the season. We are so close to the top four and have the opportunity in Madrid to play the final against Liverpool.
“It is an amazing season in our new home. This chapter that we’re going to close now, until June 1, it can be amazing to close the chapter playing a final. In case we won it should be an amazing book.”
Both Liverpool and Spurs may think their name is etched on to the trophy given the manner of their respective comebacks and Pochettino thinks the Madrid showpiece will be a thrilling encounter.
“Allow me to relax a little bit, there is going to be time to talk about Liverpool,” he said.
“I want to congratulate Jurgen Klopp and all the players and Liverpool, because I think they were amazing.
“We enjoyed a lot, watching the tie against Barcelona, they are heroes too and of course it is going to be an amazing final between two English teams that for sure we are going to enjoy.”
For Ajax, a brilliant run in this competition, where they beat Real Madrid and Juventus in previous rounds, ended in the most heartbreaking of ways.
They were seconds away from a first Champions League final since 1996 and with their side set to be picked apart in the summer, they are unlikely to have a better chance of winning European football’s premier club competition than this.
Provided by Press Association Sport
Ajax‘s magical Champions League run came to an end in heartbreaking fashion on Wednesday, as a 95th-minute winner from Tottenham‘s Lucas Moura stunned the Dutch side in the second leg of the semi-final – which Ajax had at one point led 2-0.
That fast start had put the Eredivisie leaders three goals up on aggregate, but that lead was wiped out in the second half as Erik ten Hag’s side succumbed to Tottenham’s relentless pressure.
Here’s a closer look at how it all went wrong for Ten Hag and Ajax.
Goals – 2
Shots – 16
Shots on target – 4
Possession – 40%
Passing accuracy – 73%
Chances created – 16
Ten Hag was forced into making a late change to his starting XI as winger David Neres pulled up in the pre-match warm-up, with the manager choosing to insert striker Kasper Dolberg into the line-up instead.
Though that meant a reshuffle as Dusan Tadic was moved out to the left wing from his usual false nine position, it didn’t seem to cost Ajax much as they raced out to a 2-0 lead. But it all came crashing down in the second half as they lost their rhythm and attacking verve.
TACTICAL TALKING POINT
Stick or twist indecision costs Ten Hag and Ajax
As Spurs took control of the game in the second half, Ten Hag faced a difficult choice: abandon the attacking mentality that had gotten his side this far, or keep playing to his team’s strengths?
He ended up not doing either. Right-back Joel Veltman came on for midfielder Lasse Schone, with starting right-back Noussair Mazraoui moving into midfield, the position he played before this season, while midfielder Daley Sinkgraven came on for the lacklustre Dolberg.
But the substitutions signalled a retreat from Ajax – and the Spurs pressure eventually told.
"As a coach, there are matches where we don't play, there are matches where we play very bad but there are matches where we play very well and Ajax in the 2nd half needed him to play very well and he played like his team:not very well."— beIN SPORTS (@beINSPORTS) May 8, 2019
Mourinho on Erik ten Hag😳#beINMourinho pic.twitter.com/Ntwj0I1Wk5
This result is so heartbreakingly harsh on Ten Hag and his side. They were seconds away from a thoroughly deserved Champions League final appearance, after they knocked out Real Madrid and Juventus to get here.
Ten Hag may perhaps rue his team’s inexperience. No one in the Ajax side knew how to calm the game down when Tottenham were building up a head of steam – though all the experience in the world didn’t help Barcelona in a similar situation on Tuesday. In the end, his own second-half tactics probably cost Ajax.
RATING – 6/10