Tottenham Hotspur have dug deep time and time again to reach their first final after a campaign of constant drama. Mike Collett recounts their high-wire heroics 

BELIEF

BEYOND

Every club that reaches a cup final rides their luck a little, comes back from the brink, or survives a scare when all hope seems lost. But it is doubtful that any team has defied the odds as much as Tottenham Hotspur during this astonishing campaign.

Mauricio Pochettino’s men have faced the trapdoor at least six times and survived on each occasion, showing remarkable resilience of character and belief instilled by their Argentinian coach. Even when disaster loomed as early as October after defeats by Inter Milan and Barcelona and a 2-2 draw at PSV Eindhoven, they never stopped battling. Despite that, their campaign almost imploded again in early November when they trailed 1-0 at Wembley to PSV with only 13 minutes remaining. But then something remarkable happened, and it has kept happening ever since. 

Harry Kane scored twice in the latter stages – the winning goal a header that went in via two deflections in the 89th minute – to give Spurs a 2-1 victory, and suddenly there was hope. Not much, but enough. They kept it alive by defeating Inter at Wembley, Christian Eriksen coming off the bench to finally break the visitors’ resilient defence. All they had to do now was go to Barcelona and match Inter’s result on the final night of group action.

5 GOALS

HARRY KANE, LUCAS MOURA

TEAM LEADERS

3 ASSISTS

DELE ALLI, CHRISTIAN ERIKSEN

124.4KM DISTANCE COVERED 

CHRISTIAN ERIKSEN

Only Fernando Llorente and Toby Alderweireld have played in the final. 

2

Goals conceded in the opening 15 minutes in Europe this season.

7

The first side to reach the final without winning any of their first three games.

1

Most attempts on target for Heung-Min Son, one more than Harry Kane.

14

Spurs are the 40th club to reach the European Cup final.

40

One feature of Spurs’ journey has been the number of early goals they have conceded and late goals they have scored, and that trend continued at the Camp Nou, where Ousmane Dembélé put Barça ahead after only seven minutes before Lucas Moura’s 85th-minute equaliser. Following an agonising wait for Inter’s match against PSV to finish, Spurs players and fans went wild with delight when news arrived of a 1-1 draw at the San Siro. Spurs were through.

The next obstacle were high-flying Borussia Dortmund, but Spurs had beaten the German league leaders home and away in the group stage last season, and were about to perform another double success. They kicked off with a 3-0 victory at Wembley, before Kane hit the only goal in Germany – becoming Spurs’ all-time record scorer in European competition with his 24th strike. 

“It’s a massive achievement to be in the quarter-finals,” Pochettino said afterwards, “but we need to show more if you want to be at the next level. I don’t know if we are in the middle, or 70% of the way there.” What came next might have given him a clue. Quarter-final opponents Manchester City were in fearsome form, in the midst of 14 consecutive wins to retain their Premier League title. They lost only once during that all-conquering sequence: a 1-0 defeat by Spurs in the first UEFA Champions League match to be played at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Hugo Lloris kept out an early penalty from Sergio Agüero and Heung-Min Son provided the clincher 12 minutes from time. Nevertheless, City remained most people’s favourites to reach the last four. 

What they could not overcome, however, was a dramatic late Video Assistant Referee (VAR) decision, and Spurs’ incredible survival instinct. One of the greatest matches in European football history, and one recalling the free-scoring days of the 1950s and 1960s, began with City gaining a fourth-minute lead. “They scored early,” said full-back Danny Rose, “and I just remember thinking, ‘It’s going to be a long night.’” Long on thrills, as it turned out: it was 2-2 after 11 minutes and 4-3 to City in the dying seconds, leaving Spurs ahead on away goals before the most dramatic VAR decision of the season. 

Manchester City were the visitors for Spurs’ first European night under the lights in their new home

Raheem Sterling thought he had buried the winner for City as the home fans, players and coaches all celebrated an incredible ‘victory’, only for the goal to be disallowed for an offside. 

Rose, who had conceded the first-leg penalty after a VAR referral, recalled: “Not for a minute did I think that goal would go to VAR as well. I was gutted for those two minutes; time just literally stands still. You’re just praying that the referee can find a fault. Luckily for us, he did.” Somehow, Spurs had survived again – and Ajax, conquerors of Real Madrid and Juventus, were next.

Spurs went into the home first leg still without the injured Kane and the suspended Son and were outplayed by a youthful Ajax side who deservedly led 1-0 at half-time. But Pochettino, who admitted afterwards his 3-5-2 formation at the start was a mistake, switched to a more solid 4-4-2 in the second half. Although Spurs did not score, they headed to the Netherlands still believing the tie was winnable.

Then something remarkable happened, and it has kept happening ever since

That belief seemed misplaced after Matthijs de Ligt and Hakim Ziyech had put Ajax 3-0 ahead on aggregate within 35 minutes. What followed next is already part of Spurs folklore. A second-half hat-trick from Lucas, with the winning goal coming in the sixth minute of added time, gave Spurs a 3-2 win and another away-goals triumph. The scenes in the stadium and the pubs and bars of Amsterdam and London were ones of utter joy. 

“Football is not just about 90 minutes,” said Son. “It’s about 95 or 96 minutes. That’s why we did it. It’s probably one of the top-three memories, good memories, in my life. I could watch these clips all day.” Pochettino knelt on the pitch and sobbed tears of joy as Spurs, who first competed for the European Cup in 1961/62 and lost to Benfica in the semis, finally reached a destination their legendary manager Bill Nicholson had just missed out on all those years ago. They had made it to the final. 

And they just need to survive that trapdoor one more time to achieve what would be the greatest success in their history and become only the sixth club to complete a clean sweep of all three major UEFA trophies. It is safe to assume that no one could possibly have entertained that thought when Spurs were trailing 1-0 with 13 minutes to go against PSV Eindhoven last November.

ROAD TO MADRID

GROUP B

Barcelona

Spurs

Inter Milan

PSV Eindhoven

W

4

2

2

0

D

2

2

2

2

L

0

2

2

4

F

14

9

6

6

A

5

10

7

13

Pts

14

8

8

2

P

6

6

6

6

Inter Milan

Spurs

PSV Eindhoven

Spurs

Spurs

Barcelona

2-1

2-4

2-2

2-1

1-0

1-1

Spurs

Barcelona

Spurs

PSV Eindhoven

Inter Milan

Spurs

ROUND OF 16

Spurs

Dortmund

3-0

0-1

Dortmund

Spurs

Spurs win 4-0 on aggregate

QUARTER-FINALS

Spurs

Manchester City

1-0

4-3

Manchester City

Spurs

Aggregate 4-4; Spurs win on away goals

SEMI-FINALS

Spurs

Ajax

0-1

2-3

Ajax

Spurs

Aggregate 3-3; Spurs win on away goals

TOP SCORERS

Harry Kane

Lucas Moura

Heung-Min Son

5

5

4

MINUTES PLAYED

Toby Alderweireld

Christian Eriksen

Hugo Lloris

990

913

889

PASSES COMPLETED

Toby Alderweireld

Christian Eriksen

Davinson Sánchez

585 (90%)

475 (80%)

466 (91%)

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