On Tuesday, Liverpool shocked the world by overcoming a 3-0 semifinal deficit to bounce Lionel Messi and Barcelona from the Champions League. It was one of the most remarkable European victories in the history of a club that’s known for remarkable European victories; it seemed inconceivable that any team would top it for some time.
Just 24 hours later, Tottenham Hotspur answered the call.
The London club pulled off a dramatic comeback — its second Champions League thriller in a month — in the final seconds of Wednesday’s semifinal against Ajax, which means that for just the second time in the competition’s history, two English teams will play in the final match. According to the FiveThirtyEight Soccer Power Index (SPI), none of this was supposed to happen. Before the second legs of the two semifinals, SPI gave Tottenham a 25 percent chance to advance to the final and Liverpool just a 7 percent chance. But both teams pulled off the very, very unlikely, and now Madrid will be overrun on June 1 with overserved British fans chanting the names of their favorite players.
To be sure, Tottenham entered its second-leg match in better shape than its Premier League rivals did a day before, if just barely. Spurs lost 1-0 to Ajax in the first leg, and their troubles were compounded by the fact that they conceded a dreaded away goal,1 but the deficit was just one goal. A goal and a shutout in Amsterdam would ensure they reached at least extra time, while two goals and a clean sheet would give Tottenham passage to the final. Nothing was out of reach, but the London side still had a lot to do against a plucky group of Dutch youngsters who had become the tournament’s feel-good story.
When Ajax’s teenage captain, Matthijs de Ligt, opened the scoring with a header in the fifth minute, whatever hope Spurs clung to started to fade. The Dutch squad began the second leg the same way it began the first, attacking with abandon and causing Tottenham’s older, tired center backs plenty of grief. It wasn’t long before Ajax bagged a second goal courtesy of a left-footed strike from forward Hakim Ziyech that swerved past the outstretched hands of goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. If 1-0 felt doable, 2-0 felt insurmountable — particularly for a Spurs team that looked exhausted.
But after halftime, Tottenham seemed magically refreshed. Mauricio Pochettino’s side forced Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana to make a few key stops before getting their breakthrough in the 55th minute on a left-footed strike from forward Lucas Moura. A second came just four minutes later, again on a left-footed effort from Moura.
The mood at Johan Cruyff Arena went from ecstasy to agony within a matter of minutes. Could this be happening? Could their beloved Ajax really be on the verge of collapse?
Ajax managed to settle the game after Moura’s second mark, but the squad failed to convert a number of excellent scoring chances that would have buried Tottenham. A shot from Ziyech that clanged off the right post and a massive Lloris save in stoppage time kept the Lilywhites in the game, but they were still in need of a minor miracle — or a Lucas Moura hat trick.
And as if to say to Liverpool, “Here, hold my drink,” Spurs got their wish as Moura slotted yet another left-footed effort2 into the bottom-right corner of the Ajax goal, this time in the final minute of stoppage time. The goal leveled things on aggregate at 3-3 but gave Tottenham the win on away goals.
In the end, the result was a fair one: The Londoners took more total shots, directed more shots on goal, completed more passes in the attacking third, completed more passes in the opposing penalty area and created more big chances than their counterparts from Amsterdam. Over the course of both legs, Tottenham outperformed Ajax in expected goals 4.5 to 2.9, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. The second half of the second leg will be responsible for much of that discrepancy, but it doesn’t matter when the goals come, just that they come at all.
We wondered in March if an English team could win the Champions League title. We know now that one will — it’s just a matter of which one. Liverpool has the edge — 71 percent to 29 percent — but after this week, it’s clear that the odds don’t mean much to these two teams.
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