THE UEFA Champions League knockout stages never disappoint – they represent the very best football in the world, more engaging than the World Cup, more exciting than the Premier and more dramatic than an episode of Line of Duty. Where else can ecstasy turn to agony, grown men openly weep, higher orders get called upon and TV pundits abandon all decorum and reserve? The competition gets a fair amount of criticism for being overblown, elitist and greed-driven, but when it gets to the latter phase, there is no finer sporting spectacle.
The semi-finals have been the stuff of script-writers, a standard of comic-book drama that sounds almost like an episode of Roy of the Rovers. You couldn’t make it up, as they say.
Tottenham Hotspur are in their first Champions League final after one of the most unlikely victories in the competition’s history. Ajax, at half-time, were 3-0 up on aggregate and heading for the final. The crowd sensed it, the players sensed it, and a second-half recovery seemed impossible. Ajax were back and players like De Light, De Jong and Ziyech were getting ready to be placed on the same podium as Neeskens, Krol and Cruyff.
What happened next will forever sit alongside the Netherlands’ disastrous slip-up in 1974, when – by rights – Cruyff and his beautiful people should have won the FIFA World Cup. One suspects that, in Amsterdam at the very least, Ajax’s collapse will be categorised alongside that fateful 90 minutes Munich as the day Dutch hearts were broken.
Just as in 1974 when the Dutch team was at its peak, this Ajax team may never have the chance to repeat its remarkable feats, a season in which they faced-off with old rivals Bayern, beat Real in Spain, beat Juve in Italy and were seconds away from reaching the final. As we have been told, this Ajax side is likely to break-up this summer – as you read this, agents are undoubtedly already heading for Amsterdam in search of young talent.
For the neutral, and those that believe European football extends beyond Real, Barca and Bayern, the hope was that Ajax could rekindle old flames and continue to paint a romantic story that gave you the sense that footballing diversity was still alive waiting to break through the ice in places like Amsterdam, Lisbon and Glasgow. The dreamers almost had their way, but some consolation can be sought in Tottenham, a team that isn’t quite as well endowed as other Premier giants and has been craving tangible success to anoint their progress over the past half dozen years.
Tottenham’s comeback was seismic, especially as England captain Harry Kane was sitting in the stand, changing his expression from grimace to blood-drained despair to deep joy throughout the 90 minutes. Lucas Moura is destined to become a quiz night question in the future, for the Brazilian scored a well-taken hat-trick, the winning goal coming literally seconds from the end of the game.
Spurs now have the chance to reclaim their position as a media darling. In the 1960s, when they won the first double since 1897, they became something of a journalists’ favourite with many top writers eulogising about the quality of the football at White Hart Lane. It’s an accolade that shifted to Arsenal in the Wenger years – it is noticeable how many media types and celebrities seem to support the Gunners.
The last time Spurs were realistically in the frame for the big prize was in 1961-62, when they were beaten in the last four by Benfica, a year after Spurs’ last league title win. The club’s trophy count in the past 20 or 30 years has been relatively poor and you sense a bit of creeping anxiety that Pochettino has not been able to win a major prize.
Sometimes, success comes to the least likely recipients. It has happened before in the Champions League – 1997 Dortmund, 2004 Porto, 2005 Liverpool, 2010 Inter and 2012 Chelsea. None of these teams were expected to win the trophy and in some cases, such as Chelsea, it was their least competent XI of that period that won after a number of failures at the semi-final stage.
So it is Liverpool v Spurs in Madrid. You cannot begrudge both teams from taking their place in the final, they produced two of the most incredible comebacks in history, but there will be those that are disappointed, and I do not mean Barcelona and Ajax. European competition is supposed to be teams from different nations slugging it out. A domestic contest on foreign soil will not only feel strange, it will also look all-too-familiar.
The winners won’t mind, of course, but if ever there was good evidence to revert to “champions-only” in the Champions League, then surely it has to be the meeting of teams that finished 3rdand 4thin 2017-18 in the Premier League. But they’re not alone, since 2004, only four clubs have won the trophy after qualifying for the competition as their domestic champions – Porto (2003-04), Barcelona (2005-06), Inter (2009-10) and Real Madrid (2017-18). That said, it could be a game that lives up to its billing – these are two teams who like to attack, so expect some goals – just look at the semi-final second legs.
Spare a thought, however, for the young Ajax team who let it all slip through their fingers. This capitulation will live on for years, just as 1974 is ingrained in the national psyche of the Netherlands.