Tottenham Hotspur’s Road to Madrid
Late goals, heart-stopping moments, comebacks and records broken. It’s been the story of Tottenham Hotspur’s Champions League run, the journey of a lifetime, and their first final ever in this competition awaits, with an all-English clash against Liverpool. Gregor Kerr looks at Spurs’ unforgettable road to Madrid.
The story of the group stage was eventful enough for a full book, but it was just a snippet of what was in store. It began in Milan, for Inter’s first Champions League game in over six years, with Christian Eriksen scoring the first goal of this journey to put Spurs in front. Mauro Icardi volleyed a stunning equaliser late on, before Vecino stooped in to win it for Inter at the very death. It was a setback, the first of a few.
Barcelona followed at Wembley, where Messi created and scored two goals to leave with all the points, despite goals from Harry Kane and Erik Lamela. After two games there was zero points on the board, not quite panic stations but reasons for concern.
In Eidenhoven, things were getting back on track for a while with Kane and Moura putting the away side 2-1 up with only ten minutes remaining. Again, they found a way to capitulate as Hugo Lloris saw red and Luuk De Jong equalised. With just the solitary point halfway through the group stages, the red panic button was closed to being slammed. The return game was at Wembley next and it was win or bust.
After a minute, De Jong had scored again. PSV had taken the lead again, and the story was repeating itself. The match was agonising for Spurs, chances cleared off the line, woodwork hit and big chances spurned. It was fizzling out until Fernando Llorente, who came up clutch many a time this season, set up Kane for an equaliser, before the club’s talisman won it in the 90th minute, seconds from elimination.
Inter at home followed the same trend, missed chances and a feeling of “what if?’, until Moussa Sissoko powered down the wing, played in Alli who spun and spotted the oncoming Eriksen, who finished into the roof of the net. With ten minutes left, again, Tottenham had somehow avoided elimination from their group. The only remaining match was at the Camp Nou, their first trip to the stadium.
Ousmane Dembele made sure the task would be yet another challenge for Pochettino as he opened the scoring early, capitlsing on a mistake from the young Kyle Walker-Peters. The goal only made Spurs grow as Son, Alli and Moura all had chances to score, yet Ter-Stegen in the Barca goal kept denying then. With news filtering through that Inter were being held to a draw, Tottenham knew that just a point would be enough. Just 81 minutes on the clock, that late goal arrived yet again from Lucas Moura. It proved to be enough, largely thanks to a huge tackle from PSV’s Nick Vergeever to keep Inter at bay. From the brink of elimination, the round of 16 was in sight.
The Dortmund tie brought the least drama of all. With Harry Kane in the first leg at Wembley it was still a breeze for Spurs, with Son opening the scoring before Vertonghen, playing at left-back, and Llorente both adding on to the tally late meaning Dortmund needed at least four goals in Germany. Despite an early onslaught, a Harry Kane goal meant that Spurs’ won both legs and progressed 4-0 on aggregate. That’s as easy as it got.
When Manchester City’s name was pulled out the hat the eyes will have rolled. The worst possible draw. They had been relentless domestically, but like Spurs, hadn’t made that next step into Europe. For all of City’s power, they did possess that exact same flaw. Perhaps that’s how Spurs made it through.
The first leg was Spurs’ first European match back home for three years, and it was unforgettable. Not for the first time in the tie, VAR intervened to give City an early penalty; Danny Rose adjudged to have handled the ball. Lloris saved from Aguero to keep it level and from there you could sense belief growing in the home crowd. With Harry Kane suffering a serious ankle injury yet again, it was Heung-Min Son who proved the goalscorer, giving Spurs a 1-0 lead heading to Manchester.
The second-leg at the Etihad will live long in the memories of both fans, for vast different reasons. A back-and forth start saw Sterling and Son trade goals, with City taking a 3-2 lead going into the break, still behind on away goals. Aguero scored early in the second-half and the dream looked to be slipping away for Pochettino’s side again.
Llorente, a man often vilified going into the game, spotted a near post gap with fifteen minutes remaining. He gained a run on his man, threw himself at the ball and bundled it in not with his hand, or feet, but with his now famous hip. Following a VAR check, not the last, the goal was given and Spurs were back where they started.
In classic Tottenham fashion, there had to be a twist. As they ground out the result, stuck every man behind the ball and watched Victor Wanyama kick everything into touch, Christian Eriksen had one final chance to clear the ball. The ball went backwards, it was given away. Aguero slid in Sterling, who dummied, shot and won the tie right at the death. Until VAR stepped in and adjudged the Argentinian to have been offside. Relief of the biggest scale, and a first semi-final since the 1960s awaited.
Ajax had taken the acclaim throughout the season, with young stars like Mathias De Ligt and Frenkie De Jong inspiring them to a fairytale of their own. It was one of the lesser highlighted players, Donny Van de Beek, who settled the first leg back at the new White Hart Lane. With Kane and Son both out, the task was near impossible.
It became inconceivable when Ajax took an early 2-0 lead back in Amsterdam. De Ligt and Hakim Ziyech both scored, and threatened to tear apart Pochettino’s team. In the second-half they needed three goals without reply, having managed none in their last three games. Kane stormed into the changing room and asked the players “Is this how you want to be remembered?”
He probably wasn’t the only one with strong words, as Lloris and Pochettino both laid into their performance. A footballing miracle from high above was needed, and it was given. Moura gave a slight glimmer of hope with a breakaway goal ten minutes after the restart, and quickly added a second. Kicking and screaming, they hadn’t let their dream die.
The clock ticked closer, Vertonghen had a free header and the crossbar was the only thing preventing a winner. Up the other end, Ziyech had more chances, striking the far post and testing Lloris. 95 minutes added, and 95 minutes played, there was a long hopeful ball up to Llorente who had changed the tie with his physicality, Alli anticipated and flicked the ball around a small corner for Moura who saw his chance. It went in and Amsterdam had fallen. Pochettino raced onto the pitch as did his bench and once again, as they had throughout the past eight months, Spurs found a way. Their first Champions League final in the club’s history lay in wait.
Pochettino will have a selection dilemma despite his entire squad returning to fitness. Kane and Harry Winks would normally be certified starters, but to start their first game for two months, in the baking heat of Madrid would present a big risk. Kieran Trippier at the best of times leaves fans trepidation, with a groin niggle that he has carried all season it would petrify them. With Saido Mane and Andy Robertson attacking his side, expect to see overloads from Liverpool on that part of the pitch
It’s hard to do justice for this game with words, the enormity of the occasion, mainly for Spurs, can’t be emphasised enough. This was the dream for Pochettino and Daniel Levy, to come this close to the pinnacle of club football. It’s their chance to become one of the super clubs and join an elite list. Fifteen years ago, the thought wouldn’t be given the time of day. The reward for winning would be unparalleled, putting Pochettino and his players on a group of their own. By late Saturday night, they could become the most famous side in Tottenham Hotspur’s history.