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After a season of unlikely Champions League results, two miracles occurred in the semifinals this week. Liverpool overcame a 3-0 deficit against mighty FC Barcelona to reach its second title game in a row, sure. But that was nothing.
Because a bigger miracle still happened in Amsterdam on Wednesday. After the scenes in Liverpool, which were magical, Tottenham Hotspur overturned a 3-0 aggregate deficit to Ajax with just 35 minutes to play in the second leg on Wednesday. A Lucas Moura hat trick undid the home team in the last seconds of the fifth and final minute of injury time, giving the Spurs the victory on away goals.
And in a way, there were two miracles wrapped up into this one miracle.
We’ll start with Ajax.
Ajax came within seconds, within a shot not quite blocked, a header not quite won, a pass not quite connected to start the Spurs attack up the gut, from reaching its first Champions League final since 1996 and the seventh in the club’s history.
That, of all the unlikely things to happen this Champions League season, would have been the most improbable. Because it seemed impossible for Ajax to get back to the heights it had scaled in the early 1970s and the mid-’90s. The club’s own flawed policies — a litany of them, in fact, as it careened from one failed plan to another — paired with a financial picture that heavily favored teams from the bigger leagues precluded it. Or that was the conventional wisdom anyway.
It was enough to make a lifelong fan cynical.
But Ajax went ahead early Wednesday on Matthijs de Ligt’s header from a corner and doubled the score on Hakim Ziyech’s splendid finish from a counter, tacking on to Donny van de Beek’s lone goal in the first leg in North London. And then Ajax clung on in the second half as the Spurs made a tactical switch and took control, just as it had in the first leg.
Moura scored twice before the hour — once on a counter-attack with Dele Alli; once capitalizing on bungling in the Ajax defense — to put the Spurs within a goal of squeaking through. Ajax had chances to rebuild its lead as Ziyech hit the post once and went close several times. For the Spurs, Jan Vertonghen, an Ajax academy product no less, nodded a header off the crossbar and time appeared to be running out. Until Moura struck again, seemingly out of nowhere, on a last-chance hoof up the gut.
Had Ajax seen it out, and made it back to the pinnacle of the continental game, its Cinderella run would have been a repudiation of the very notion that club soccer is now run entirely by the big money. That only the richest of teams can compete in this moneyed era, in this age of nine-figure transfer fees and teams speaking openly about their pursuit of a billion dollars in annual revenue, as Barca has.
Ajax has sculpted and crafted a team through its academy, augmented by savvy and strategic transfers, a method of team-building that has gone long out of fashion now that everything, and everyone, is for sale. But it’s a method that is also the only option when you play in a smaller league with commensurate television revenue. The Dutch juggernaut deserves credit for that still. But the point isn’t as well taken when you don’t make it all the way to the end.
When you get to play for the title, somehow, in your own succession of miracles. When, like the Spurs, you’re hopelessly short-staffed after two transfer windows provided no reinforcements to a thin squad. When, like the Spurs, you’ve faded badly in the Premier League because you’ve been running on fumes since Christmas. When, like the Spurs, you’ve been hit by one major injury after another, not least to star striker Harry Kane.
Because the Spurs are their own brand of miraculous.
They eked through the group stage with just two wins out of six and a negative goal difference, thanks to an 85th-minute equalizer at Barca by, of course, Lucas Moura. And in the quarterfinals, it somehow emerged as the victor in a madcap finale with the favored Manchester City, when some hypnotic late theater saw them advance, with help from the Video Assistant Referee.
Ajax dazzled Europe with its fearless attacking and its ceaseless high press. And its heartbreak may echo for years as the core of its team will likely be picked off by richer clubs this summer. Playmaker Frenkie de Jong has already been sold to Barca. And de Ligt looks like he’ll follow him there, ripping the spine and heart out of the team.
But while Ajax will lament how easily it surrendered all three of those goals — the second one in particular, borne of a misunderstanding between goalkeeper Andre Onana and veteran midfielder Lasse Schone — the Spurs are on their own fairytale run.
And that’s been the way this enchanting edition of the Champions League has gone, with one seemingly destined team colliding with another and another, with the unfancied one somehow always surviving. Now awaits a final between the winners of the Miracle of Merseyside and the Miracle of Amsterdam, while Barca and Ajax ponder the unlikelihood of their respective lots.
It will surely be miraculous in Madrid.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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