Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino was overcome by emotion after the extraordinary Champions League semi-final victory over Ajax Amsterdam on Wednesday and who could blame him? Few managers have had to deal with what Pochettino has this season — from being the only European club to make no signings in consecutive transfer windows to playing home games at Wembley because of delays in the completion of the club’s new stadium.
On top of that, many of Tottenham’s squad were involved deep into the World Cup finals with England, Belgium and France and it showed in recent weeks when the losses started piling up, with players running on fumes.
Tottenham arrived in Amsterdam on the back of three successive defeats and with top striker Harry Kane watching from the stands as he recovers from an ankle injury sustained in the first leg of Tottenham’s quarter-final win over Manchester City.
At halftime on Wednesday they looked down and out with Ajax, already 1-0 up after the first leg, leading 2-0 thanks to goals by Matthijs de Ligt and Hakim Ziyech.
But Tottenham, once mocked by rival fans for being soft-centred, showed immense spirit and forced their way back into their first European Cup semi-final for 57 years.
Lucas Moura, who would not even have been playing had Kane been fit, wrote himself into Tottenham folklore with a 35-minute hat-trick to send the away fans into delirium and Pochettino into floods of tears.
Tottenham’s Champions League campaign had looked all but over after they picked up one point from their first three group games.
They needed late winners in consecutive games against PSV Eindhoven and Inter Milan and a draw in Barcelona, earned with Moura’s goal, to get into the knockout phase.
Now, after knocking out Borussia Dortmund, Manchester City and Ajax, they can look forward to taking on Liverpool on June 1 in their first final in European club football’s top competition.
“CLOSE TO A MIRACLE”
Pochettino said on the eve of the Ajax second leg that it would be a miracle if Tottenham won the Champions League and that he might decide to do something else if they pulled it off.
Tottenham fans will hope he was only joking but if Spurs do upset the odds again in Madrid and Pochettino does depart, he would do so ranked up alongside Bill Nicolson on the club’s list of all-time managerial greats.
“I think it’s one of the most important nights in my life,” Pochettino, who joined Tottenham in 2014 and is on the verge of sealing a fourth successive top-four finish, told reporters.
“I think (the players) are super heroes 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 start of the season.”
With fewer resources than the rest of England’s top six, not to mention the likes of European heavyweights like Barcelona and Real Madrid, Pochettino has had to extract every last drop of value from his squad.
Moura, the last signing Tottenham made in January last year, has often been a bit-part player but when called upon has been a vital option for Pochettino.
Likewise experienced Spanish striker Fernando Llorente, whose introduction at halftime on Wednesday helped muscle Tottenham back into contention.
Moussa Sissoko, whose energy drove Tottenham forward in the second half, is another player who has thrived under Pochettino after initially being written off.
Whatever happens in Madrid, Tottenham are punching well above their weight in terms of investment and it is something of which Pochettino is rightly proud.
“Without Harry Kane many people were talking about Sonny (Son Heung-min) but today it was Lucas Moura who scored three goals and you know if you don’t respect all the players, you cannot only have 11 players,” Pochettino said.
“You can have some players who can win some games but to be in the Champions League final you need 24 or 25 and the relationship must always be honest with everyone.
“In moments when you need them, they need to give their best.”
Ajax bemoan letting final slip from their grasp
Ajax Amsterdam coach Erik ten Hag described their semi-final exit from the Champions League as “very cruel” after the Dutch side were undone by Lucas Moura’s 96th minute strike for Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday. “Football can be very beautiful and it can be very cruel. We have had to experience that today,” said Ten Hag, whose young side appeared to be heading for a final showdown with Liverpool on June 1 in Madrid until Moura’s last-gasp strike shattered their dreams.
Having lost the first leg in London 1-0, Tottenham secured their place in the final thanks to a hat-trick from Moura which completed a 3-2 win on the night. With the encounter ending 3-3 on aggregate, Spurs emerged triumphant on the away goals rule.
The result ended Ajax’s long, and barely plausible, ride through three preliminary rounds, starting in July, to the last four of the competition.
During that incredible run, they had knocked out holders Real Madrid and Juventus and on Wednesday were seconds away from a place in the final — until it all ended in heartache.
“Overall we had a fantastic Champions League campaign, we were one second away from the final and for that our team deserves a very big compliment, I’m very proud of my players,” said Ten Hag.
But the coach admitted that they let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers having been 3-0 ahead on aggregate with 45 minutes left to play.
“If you’re 2-0 up, you have to make sure you win the game, and we failed to do that. In the first phase after halftime we lost our grip on the game, they played a more opportunistic game,” he said.
“But after the score was level at 2-2 we dominated again and we created chances.
“It’s very bitter that none of those went in, and that they scored a very fortunate goal in the last seconds, maybe even past what should have the last second.”
Defender Daley Blind described the defeat as “a dream that had burst” while teenaged captain Matthijs de Ligt called it “a nightmare”.
“What am I supposed to say? It’s terrible. We were so close. This is a dream that has burst apart,” said Blind.
De Ligt added: “It’s a nightmare, like a dream that went bad.
“We played well in the first half, we had it all our way. We didn’t keep up the same pressure in the second half.
“We gave silly goals away. We were so close to the final … and then the ball goes in. Unbelievable.”