The last and only time two English teams were in the final of the Champions League, it was back in 2008 when the Premier League was dominated by the Red Devils and the Blues.
Manchester United, then still led by Sir Alex Ferguson was facing off Avram Grant’s Chelsea.
Long before Steven Gerrard’s infamous slip against Chelsea in 2014, the Londoners suffered their own in John Terry.
After Cristiano Ronaldo missed the crucial third penalty during the shootout with the game tied at 1-1, the Blues captain had the chance to win it for his club but instead planted his foot wrongly during the spot kick, fell down, and pummelled the ball right and into the goal post.
Edwin van der Sar then saved Nicolas Anelka’s effort from Chelsea’s seventh kick to give Manchester United their third European Cup title.
Fast forward 11 years and we are heading for another all English final.
Liverpool booked their slot after stunning the footballing world with a 4-0 win over Barcelona at Anfield, coming back from a 0-3 deficit suffered at Camp Nou. Media outlets everywhere labeled the win as monumental with such nouns as ‘historical’, ‘miracle’, ‘Istanbul’, plastered across headlines in multiple languages.
The day after that epic showdown, Barcelona and Liverpool had been on the lips of online forums and coffeeshop talk the world over.
Meanwhile, a quiet clash between Dutch giants Ajax Amsterdam and the Premier League’s third-placed team, Tottenham Hotspur, were just mere hours away at the Johan Cruyff Arena. And yet, it had been largely ignored when compared to the other, more illustrious match-up.
Ajax carried a 1-0 lead from the first leg after a stale match up at the Londoner’s new stadium. An away goal means almost as much a half-goal lead at the home leg.
Captain Matthijs De Ligt scored a powerful header just FOUR minutes into the match. The teenage wonder may only be 19 years old, but his performances on the pitch has granted him the status of a giant in the squad. Hakim Ziyech, another fine talent bound to head to a major club in the summer doubled the lead with a left footed strike that beat Hugo Lloris by miles.
“Ajax are on their way to the Champions League finals almost certainly,” said the commentator as Ziyech wheels off in celebration. “But what would a Spurs goal here do to the tie?” he added.
‘Certainly’ is a dangerous word to use, especially after what had happened with Liverpool.
And indeed, there was nothing Ajax could do to prevent the events over the last 45 minutes from unfolding.
Firstly, Mauricio Pochettino swapped Victor Wanyama with Fernando Llorente during half-time for additional firepower. Without Harry Kane in their line-up, Spurs had resorted to using Heung Min Son and Lucas Moura as makeshift strikers in recent weeks.
Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli kept knocking on the door but Ajax’s Andre Onana continually denied and parried effort after effort from the duo. It looked as if Ajax had built a fort so sturdy, nothing could break it down.
Then Lucas Moura clutched into fifth gear.
The Brazilian engineered a series of brilliant passes and touches between himself, Alli and Danny Rose. And then, in the 55th minute, as he collected the ball near the net, all it took was a simple tap to start his first of three goals.
Three minutes later, Kieran Trippier hit a laser like cross for Llorente which was a point-blank tap in but the Spanish missed the sitter and the ball fell to Onana. The Cameroonian keeper fumbled the ball after a miscommunication with his defender which the French attacker took advantaged of to nick the ball away, turn and fire into the left corner.
Just like that, the tie was now 3-2. One more goal from Spurs would guarantee progress into the finals. The panic is beginning to set in on both sides. Ajax manager Erik Ten Hag, realizing that a goal from Spurs would effectively end their hopes and Pochettino knowing that one more goal is all his side needs.
Ten Hag started making tactical defensive substitutions with striker Kasper Dolberg and Lasse Schone coming off for Joel Veltman and Daley Sinkgraven. Pochettino waits until the 80th minute before introducing Erik Lamela and Ben Davis for Rose and Trippier.
Hearts from both dug outs must have skipped a beat when Ziyech bettered Lloris and connected with the post in the 78th minute. Jan Vertonghen also saw his header in the 86th minute kiss the post and the follow-up strike cleared by a defender.
As the referee signals for an extra-time of five minutes, the pressure began to sink in for the young Ajax roster. They chased for another goal instead of controlling the pace in the closing minutes.
As time ticked into the closing seconds, Moura wrote his name into Spurs’ anthology of legends when he fired one past Onana, who had been nothing but spectacular for Ajax’s run in the European competition, and took Tottenham Hotspur to their first ever Champions League final.
Spurs has done it. They’ve pulled off their very own insurmountable comeback in just 45 minutes. This after the drama of a quarter final tie against Premier League rivals Manchester City. Four times this season, Spurs were on the brink of elimination. In the group stages, a late goal from Moura against Barcelona kept Spurs in the mix. Against Manchester City in the quarter finals, it was a mess. An outside agency, or divine intervention commonly known as the VAR, pulled them out of imminent exit.
This night, players from both clubs were in tears at the final whistle, albeit for different reasons. For Ajax, it was cruel to say the least.
“We were so close, we had so deserved it, but that last second,” Ten Hag bemoaned. “When that ball hits the post from Hakim Ziyech, it’s over and out for Spurs. But I can’t blame anyone. We have had an incredible Champions League season and have grown a lot as a team. It is difficult to process.”
For Pochettino, it was nothing short of a miracle.
“It is one of the most important nights in my life,” said Pochettino, who was reduced to tears. “The most important thing is to congratulate my players. They did a great job.”
“I have said before that they are heroes. I think they are superheroes now. To have brought the club to the final of the Champions League is very close to a miracle.”
But for now, after all their trials and tribulations, Spurs have to prepare for a highly anticipated face-off against a determined Liverpool side at Wanda Metropolitano Stadium on 1st June.
London rivals Arsenal will pit themselves against Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim’s Valencia with Chelsea taking on Eintracht Frankfurt in the semi-finals for the Europa League.
If both English clubs win, it will be the first time that the two European competitions see four English teams in the final.
What a statement that will make for what is already the world’s most expensive league.
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