Mauricio Pochettino’s first words following his side’s second-half comeback against Ajax, despite being 2-0 down at half-time, and 3-0 on aggregate, were: “Thank you, football.” After Hakim Ziyech’s fine strike in the 35th minute, the tie looked all but over. It would have taken a stunning effort to overturn what appeared to be an insurmountable scoreline at the break, and it did.
But Tottenham Hotspur simply found a way to win when they needed it most, aided by the incredible performance of Lucas Moura, who became the very first Brazilian to score a hat-trick in a Champions League semi-final. Each goal was finished with his left foot, despite in fact being right-footed.
Many would have touted this the greatest Champions League comeback of all time, if it was not for an even greater remontada just 24 hours beforehand. It is incredible how Tottenham’s comeback against Ajax was not the performance of the week.
This title must surely be handed to Liverpool, who appeared dead and buried after the first leg in Barcelona, trailing 3-0 and without a single away goal. Missing arguably their two most important players in Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, Liverpool went into the tie at Anfield looking not to concede, and to avoid serious embarrassment, or so we thought.
What followed in the next 90 minutes can only be described as unprecedented and may well be recognised as the greatest comeback the Champions League has ever seen. To beat the reigning Spanish champions FC Barcelona, who have five-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi in their team, is a serious accomplishment on its own, and had not happened previously in the Champions League this season.
Yet Liverpool turned up on that passionate night at Anfield with incredible mental strength, and Jurgen Klopp’s set-up worked to perfection. Liverpool were superb in every area, from Alisson to Origi, and with the creativity and drive of both Trent Alexander-Arnold and Georginio Wijnaldum, they were spurred on to a 4-0 victory in front of the Anfield faithful on the night, and 4-3 on aggregate.
Not only do these two astounding results display the quality of English sides in Europe (coupled with Arsenal and Chelsea’s progression to the Europa League final in Baku), but they show the world the unpredictability of football.
For the neutral, it was pure, enthralling entertainment. For the supporters, it was either wild shock and jubilation, or absolute heartbreak. In previous years, a 3-0 victory in a Champions League semi-final against one of Europe’s best teams would all-but secure a team’s progression to the ultimate showpiece, the Champions League final.
But this year, the script has been rewritten by both Liverpool and Spurs. Not once, but twice, did we see a great Champions League football comeback in the last week, and football will now never be the same.
It can be argued that the era of possession-based football is now over – Barcelona and Ajax, both who have used this tactic on repeated occasions throughout the tournament, were undone by enthralling, entertaining counter-attacking football. In fact, Ajax were so taken aback by the presence of Fernando Llorente in the second half against Spurs that they failed to cope with him, and he was the centrepiece of each and
every attack that Tottenham made. Playing fast, attacking football with Lucas and Son linked together by a tall centre-forward was not something that Ajax expected, but it was certainly something they paid the price for.
In the same vein, the way that Liverpool attacked, using both Alexander-Arnold and Robertson to bully Barcelona down the flanks made it impossible for Barcelona to press, as Liverpool’s fast-paced and decisive football won the day.
There is nothing like the emotion that one feels through football. Both Liverpool supporters’ and Klopp’s sheer disbelief at the final whistle summed up the momentous event that had just occurred. Pochettino’s tears, Dele’s emotion and even Kane’s sprinting were unexpected – but this was their reward for a sensational comeback.
For the players and supporters, there is nothing that comes close to this. The extremities of emotion are exposed in football, both through success and through failure, and even the neutral were this week moved by what they had witnessed.
Both Liverpool and Tottenham have earned their place in the Champions League final, and the showpiece will certainly be spectacular, with both teams playing fast, entertaining, counter-attacking football.
The winner will deserve the trophy but given the sheer number of surprises in this season’s Champions League, you would be naïve to suggest that it will be easy for either Liverpool or Tottenham.
It may be unlikely that we will witness another surprise in the final, or that we will ever see another Champions League like this. But as this season has taught us, it is impossible to rule out. Because in football, anything is possible.