The Champions League Semi-Finals, Act 2: My Eyes Have Seen The Glory
All football clubs mythologise themselves to some extent or another, and a huge tranche of Tottenham Hotspur’s self-image is based upon the immortal words of Danny Blanchflower: “The game is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.” Times of glory had always come with a stutter for Tottenham Hotspur, but over the last three decades the well has run almost completely dry. Two League Cups is the total of the club’s honours list since the formation of the Premier League is the honours list and, much as qualification for the Champions League is important from the logistical viewpoint of keeping Tottenham Hotspur functioning as a business, you can’t tie ribbons around fourth place in the Premier League and dance around with it on your head.
Ajax, of course, find themselves in a similar position, albeit on a different plane. This is the club that won three consecutive European Cups, between 1971 and 1973. The Amsterdam Arena is now named for the Godfather of Modern Footballers, the late Johan Cruyff. The harsh reality of television money – the Eredivisie simply isn’t worth anything like as much as the Premier League – gives Spurs a huge financial advantage over Ajax, even taking into consideration the former’s parsimony in the transfer market over the last year and a half. The European domination of the Cruyff years faded almost as quickly as they’d arrived for Ajax, but they did occasionally still throw together a team capable of greatness for a further couple of decades. They won the European Cup Winners Cup in 1987 and the UEFA Cup in 1992, before topping those by winning the European Cup again in 1995. When football started to calcify along financial lines at the start of this century, though, Ajax found themselves on the wrong side of the great divide, but this season they have burst back onto the scene again. Half-forgotten feelings have been stirred. This, we have been reminded, is who Ajax are.
Having already dispatched Real Madrid and Juventus, Ajax overcame Spurs in the first leg at White Hart Lane with a degree of comfort, though not as much as they might have liked. It was an anaemic Tottenham performance, very much in keeping with their form in the league over the last couple of months or so. But they only lost by a goal to nil, and there were occasional hints that this Ajax defence could be a little vulnerable if the right ball could be found. Had the first leg been a scouting mission, they might have returned that there was cause for some degree of optimism. It wasn’t though. It was the first leg of a UEFA Champions League semi-final, at home. That sinking feeling is also a fundamental aspect to the Spurs self-image, by the way, especially when it comes as a result of something self-inflicted having happened.
Within four minutes of kick-off, a familiar feeling had settled over the match. Hugo Lloris had already been called into one excellent save before Matthijs de Ligt muscled his way into the heart of the Spurs penalty and headed the ball into the corner of the goal. All within two hundred and forty seconds. Almost straight from the kick-off, though, Son Heung-Min got away on the left and, seeing the goalkeeper Onana hopelessly failing to cover his near post, hit the base of the goal from an extremely tight angle. It was a silly oversight, easily applicable to early nerves, but it also turned out to be something of a portent for the way Ajax’s evening would pan out. No-one knew this at the time, of course. Ajax dominated the first half, adding a second goal with a rasping diagonal shot from Hakim Ziyech across the face of Lloris. Two up at on the night and three up on aggregate at the break, Ajax’s place in the final seemed to be assured with a forty-five minutes left to play.
In the space of four minutes early in the second half, though, Spurs scrambled their way back into the match. Lucas Moura, the Brazilian squad player only in the team because of an injury which was due to keep Harry Kane out of the team until the end of the season but now may not, is an unlikely hero and viewed with suspicion by some over supportive social media messages made about Joao Bolsonaro in the run up to the last Brazilian presidential election. He’s in the team because the cupboard is otherwise bare, but a half-time switch of replacing Victor Wanyama with the slab-like Fernando Llorente had shifted Spurs attention to a more attacking formation and ten minutes in Moura ran through the Ajax defence to deposit Spurs back into the game, if not quite the tie. Four minutes after this, a close range shot from Llorente was blocked, before the ball squirmed out of Onana’s hands to Moura, who slid the ball into the empty goal to bring them level on aggregate.
Half an hour to play. Next goal wins, but if no-one scores then Ajax are through. By half-time, the Spurs mentality on social media had reverted to “defeat with honour.” They’d had a good run, beat some decent teams, and created some memories which will last a lifetime. But in the space of this five minutes the rhythm of the match had been completely flipped on its head. The Arena was quieter, as nerves descended with the dream of Ajax reaching a first European Cup final in twenty-two years starting to hone into view. Lloris was called into action again whilst a shit thudded against the base of his post. With four minutes to go, the Ajax defence fell to pieces from a corner, allowing Jan Vertonghen a free header from seven yards that his crossbar, while his rebound was scrambled off the line. “THAT. WAS. THE. CHANCE.”, read one tweet sent as the ball was cleared to safety, and it felt in that moment as though it had to be.
Five minutes of stoppage-time, an amount which can feel like the blink of an eye or one stop short of eternity, depending on how much you have to lose. Ziyech’s shot was saved by Lloris. Spurs won a corner, for which Hugo Lloris went forward only to see Llorente put the ball over the crossbar. Perhaps this was the last chance. A goalkeeper going up for a corner in stoppage-time is, after all, football’s equivalent to a last minute appeal being lodged on behalf of a death row inmate – unlikely to work, but worth a throw. With ten seconds to play, however, Moussa Sissoko launched the ball forward, Llorente flicked it on and Delle Alli contorted his leg to an unusual angle to flick it into the path of Moura, who rolled the ball in to give Spurs the win. The various disruptions meant almost another three minutes to add to the initial five, but this goal was the final act. The Ajax players had been literally floored by the goal. On this occasion, there was no way back.
Ajax outplayed Spurs for three-quarters of this two-legged tie, but football doesn’t award points for artistic merit or pass completion rates. Perhaps it was the relative youth of this Ajax team that swung the match for Spurs. They ultimately failed to close out the tie when they had a three-goal lead in the second leg of the semi-final. The added layer of disappointment for them regarding all of this comes in the form of the collective knowledge that this year’s Ajax team will now be broken up and sold on. The club should make a lot of money from these sales, but it may well mean that Ajax’s Class of 2019 ends up being a highly fleeting memory. But whilst the realpolitik of football – in particular its new, entirely money-based, world order – means that times have changed for the club, to describe them as “minnows” feels not a little patronising. Ajax have, after all, won a clean sweep of European trophies – European Cup, European Cup Winners Cup and UEFA Cup – since Spurs last won one in 1984, a fact which tells a little about both clubs. But whilst those past glories continue to fuel the Ajax’s self-image, in the present day the harsh truth of the matter is that the horse of financial inequality within European club football bolted a couple of decades ago.
For Tottenham Hotspur’s self-image to mean anything, meanwhile, it requires occasional nights like these. With fifty-eight years since their league title, thirty-five years without a European trophy, and twenty-eight years without an FA Cup, they’ve been thin on the ground over the last few decades, and it is striking that the overwhelming emotion that seemed to come out of last night’s extraordinary turnaround was relief and disbelief. The supporters of a club that has fallen flat on its face so many times over the years new in that moment, however, are unlikely to take too much for granted ahead of the final. There’s plenty of scope for them to be thrashed out of sight by an outstanding Liverpool team in the final, after all, in a match that they will start as clear underdogs. For today, though, an improbable dream stays alive. For Spurs supporters still emotionally drained from the mental exertions of the night before, the sense of disbelief is very real. Defeat with honour was trumped by one of the club’s most extraordinary European nights in the space of fifty incredible minutes in Amsterdam. Time will tell, whether this is merely yet another example of the hope before the crash or the start of something very, very different.