The story had been written. Ajax, the fairytale of all European soccer fairytales, had a foot in the Champions League final. It so very nearly had two.
But Tottenham, with the most stunning of second-half comebacks in Wednesday’s semifinal second leg, cut it short. In the 186th minute of an 180-minute two-leg tie. With a story even more remarkable than the original.
Lucas Moura, who might not have even been playing if not for an injury to star striker Harry Kane, completed a second-half hat trick with a goal in the sixth minute of stoppage time.
He turned a 3-0 aggregate deficit at halftime on Wednesday into a 3-3 deadlock at full time.
He sent Tottenham through to the final on away goals.
And he added another chapter to a Champions League knockout-round plot that is, quite frankly, not believable.
The story of a frantic second leg
As had been the case in London eight days earlier, Ajax’s quality ran rule over the first half. The Dutch side pressed and pinged the ball about the Johan Cruyff Arena’s roomy pitch. And they took an early lead.
Hugo Lloris, lunging to his left, had palmed away a deflected Dusan Tadic shot. But from the ensuing corner, Matthijs de Ligt rose above Dele Alli and powered a header into the far corner.
A clever pick play, with Donny van de Beek blocking off Jan Vertonghen, had freed Ajax’s 19-year-old captain. Tottenham players clamored for a whistle. The video assistant referee ignored their appeals.
Spurs had chances to level the score at 1-1 on the night, but couldn’t take them. Son Heung-Min sped past Ajax’s entire right side, powered into the penalty box, and caught Ajax keeper Andre Onana cheating off his line, looking to cut out a cross. Son, instead, appeared to go for goal, and clipped the near post. Tottenham attackers couldn’t quite latch onto the rebound.
Midway through the half, the visitors saw two more massive chances go wayward. The movement of their front four – Lucas, Son, Alli, Christian Eriksen – pulled Ajax’s defense out of sorts. But Son, played in by Alli, couldn’t get a first touch out of his feet and scuffed a toe-poke. A minute later, Lucas scampered into the box and teed up Eriksen … whose shot careened right down Onana’s throat.
Ajax was the better team through 45 minutes, though. Tadic sent a shot skidding past the far post from a tight angle. A 1-0 halftime lead – 2-0 on aggregate – would have been just.
But the hosts made it two. Hakim Ziyech capped off a flowing move with a sumptuous finish:
Ten minutes later, Ajax’s kids strode back down the tunnel, past the faces of legends. Through the bowels of an arena named after one, past images plastered on the wall of others. There was Edwin van der Sar. Across the way, Marco van Basten. There was Danny Blind, and of course, Johan Cruyff. There were trophies in their hands. And these kids were 45 minutes away from joining them. Joining their heroes. Becoming legends themselves. As long as disaster didn’t strike.
But when they circled back through that tunnel, emerging out onto the field to raucous noise, an already-wild week of Champions League soccer got wilder. Maniacal. Mad beyond belief.
Spurs snatched the game and wouldn’t relent. They squandered chances to pull a goal back. Alli latched onto a brilliant ball from Eriksen and forced a big save from Onana. Then Lucas, knifing through the heart of the Ajax defense, got goal No. 1. Game on.
Minutes later, Llorente forced another miraculous save from Onana. Lucas, however, sprung out of a frantic penalty-area scrap with another wonderful left-footed hit:
The game’s tide had turned, abruptly and demonstrably. Only a monstrous block from De Ligt kept Tottenham from completing the comeback in a span of 10 minutes.
Ajax, however, steadied itself after the early-second-half Spurs barrage. Ziyech very nearly sealed the win. He just missed Lloris’ post with a sweeping left-footed effort, then struck it later on.
But Tottenham’s threat never disappeared. Mauricio Pochettino’s men kept coming and coming, knocking on the proverbial door and then pounding. Vertonghen hit the crossbar with a header. His subsequent stab at the rebound was cleared off the Ajax goal-line.
Spurs had one “last chance,” then another, then a few more, all petering out into relief for 55,000 inside the ground and toward heartbreak back in London.
But the simultaneous glory and cruelty of football know no bounds. This sport never exhausts its supply of twists and turns. Lucas – of all players, Lucas! Of all feet, Lucas’ left! – had one final twist in his pocket. One last act that set up an all-English final. One last stunner that left the protagonists in what was supposed to be the story of the 2018-19 Champions League strewn across the grass.
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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.
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