Amid the manic celebrations, the flailing limbs, and the stunned screams of the commentators trying to grasp what just happened, it was difficult to comprehend how, exactly, Tottenham completed their improbable comeback against Ajax on Wednesday.
Down 3-0 on aggregate, against a fearless young team that had already steamrolled through some of Europe’s most storied clubs, an undermanned, hobbled Spurs side came roaring back. Lucas Moura, discarded by Paris Saint-Germain, played the hero, scoring three times in 40 minutes, including a 96th-minute tally that seemed to unfold in slow motion.
Looking back frame by frame, the Brazilian’s decisive goal could have fallen apart at any number of turns. That it didn’t is, frankly, shocking.
Euphoria for Tottenham. Despair for Ajax.
Here’s how Spurs, following in the footsteps of their English peers Liverpool from the previous night, completed one of the most surreal turnarounds the Champions League has ever seen.
A matter of inches
The move almost broke down before it even began.
Moussa Sissoko, improbably, finds himself as the deepest of Spurs’ players – positions are rendered meaningless at this point as Tottenham thrust bodies forward in any shape they can. The Frenchman’s long ball forward comes within inches of being blocked by the outstretched leg of Dusan Tadic.
Had the silky Serbian attacker been a few centimeters taller, Ajax would be in the Champions League final. Those are the margins we’re dealing with.
Note the clock, too. A mere seven seconds elapse between the ball leaving Sissoko’s foot and crossing the goal line behind crestfallen shot-stopper Andre Onana. Just seven seconds to craft a miracle.
An unlikely ricochet
Fernando Llorente has his share of detractors. And they’re not without their valid criticisms.
The 34-year-old striker is neither mobile nor quick – and never has been, in truth. His introduction into any match often makes Tottenham’s approach predictable; there’s only so much you can do when the focal point of your attack is a largely stationary target man. And his scoring record leaves much to be desired; Llorente has one Premier League goal in 19 appearances this season.
But, despite those faults, the Spaniard has one redeeming quality on the pitch, and it was on full display Wednesday: he’s an absolute menace in the air. Llorente won 13 aerial duels at the Johan Cruyff Arena, more than any other player in the contest. He only played 45 minutes.
Matthijs de Ligt, Ajax’s titanic teenage captain, was second with 11 duels won. Together, the two played a crucial role in Lucas’ last-gasp strike.
De Ligt, largely impervious throughout this tournament, couldn’t handle Llorente’s physical presence in the waning seconds. With the veteran striker leaning on him, the 19-year-old was unable to make clean contact and send Sissoko’s long ball back from where it came.
Instead, he redirected it into Dele Alli’s path.
An untimely slip
The fumbled clearance might not have mattered if, less than a second later, fellow defender Lisandro Magallan didn’t lose his footing. The Argentine, who played a grand total of nine minutes in the tournament, slipped as the ball bounced off De Ligt’s shin and fizzed toward him.
That gave Alli the split second he needed to poke a crafty pass through to the onrushing Lucas.
The English attacker likely gets to the loose ball first even if Magallan doesn’t take his unfortunate tumble, but if he remained upright and closed the space down just a half-second quicker, perhaps he blocks Alli’s pass.
Another “what if” for Ajax fans.
To slide, or not to slide?
Making thousands of instantaneous decisions on the pitch isn’t easy. Inevitably, you’re going to make the wrong one every so often.
In the heat of the moment, with a place in the Champions League final about 10 seconds away, throwing yourself at an attacker and potentially giving away a heartbreaking penalty is a frightening proposition for any defender.
But upon second viewing – and third, and fourth, and beyond – De Ligt will likely be ruing the fact that he didn’t catapult himself to the turf in a bid to block Lucas’ fateful effort.
You can certainly understand his fears of conceding a spot kick, but look how close both he and Nicolas Tagliafico get to stuffing Lucas’ left-footed strike:
The reverse angle tells a similar story:
Ajax were that close to a first appearance in the Champions League final since 1996; to a chance at closing out one of the most breathtaking runs in the history of the fabled competition.
Instead, by those very same margins, Tottenham find themselves on the brink of a title that nobody, not even the most staunch Spurs supporters, would have envisioned heading into the season.
And it all took just seven seconds.