Tottenham Hotspur was dead.
Metaphorically, of course. But nonetheless deceased.
Six months and two days before its greatest-ever European night, more than half a year before Lucas Moura’s left-footed second-half hat-trick, it was preparing for a burial. Perishing in embarrassment. Or so we thought.
It was nearly 10 o’clock on the night of Nov. 6, 2018. A half-empty Wembley had been overrun by groans. Frustration. Hope turned false. Spurs had stumbled against a Dutch nemesis and were stumbling again. (Sound familiar?) Stadium clocks ticked past 75:00, then past 76, then past 77. With one point from four group games, the same Champions League campaign that will end in Madrid was over.
Wednesday, you see, might not have been the greatest comeback in Champions League history. Tottenham isn’t the biggest underdog to ever reach a final. But this? This is the most preposterous of Champions League stories. The most incomprehensible and volatile and dramatic of Champions League runs.
Because Tottenham has died six 2018-19 European deaths now. And yet somehow, it is still standing – towering above all but Liverpool.
The first death: Heartbreak in Holland
The story begins in Milan and London and Eindhoven, and of course with late goals. How else? Spurs have now endured six group games and three knockout-round ties. The average minute of the latest goal in each of the nine? The 87th.
The first of the nine came in the second minute of stoppage time at the San Siro. Mauro Icardi had canceled out Christian Eriksen’s opener with a luscious volley in the 86th minute. Matias Vecino then won a game many figured would ultimately decide the group. Ben Davies keeled over. Eric Dier pounded the turf.
Two weeks later came Barcelona’s master-class.
Three weeks after that, some curious refereeing, some crossbars struck, and Luuk de Jong’s 87th-minute equalizer in Holland:
The mood at Tottenham had already been soured by stadium delays. Perhaps even still by last season’s Champions League collapse against Juventus as well. And in general, despite the club’s apparent rise, by the longest post-war trophy drought in its history. One point from three matches left Spurs fans to focus on a Premier League that Liverpool and Man City were already galloping away with. A malaise spread. Dreams evaporated.
The second death: Perishing vs. PSV
The 46,588 fans at Wembley on that Wednesday night in November held onto hope. But they quickly lost their grip when De Jong scored after 62 seconds. They fully relinquished it as Spurs attackers ran head-on into last-ditch roadblocks. Tottenham needed to win to maintain any semblance of life. With 15 minutes remaining, it was behind.
Harry Kane, however, preferred to prolong the seemingly inevitable. He hit back on 78 minutes, then saw his soft header deflect off a PSV shoulder, then a PSV thigh, and trickle over the line in the 89th:
For the first time, but certainly not the last, Spurs had cheated death.
The third death: Inter
They still had plenty of uphill climbing to do, though. With four points to Inter’s seven, and with a trip to Camp Nou still ahead, Matchday 5 brought a must-win. With 11 minutes remaining, the deadlock remained unbroken.
With 10 minutes and 47 seconds remaining, Eriksen punctured the roof of the net.
Still, though, the two sides were merely level on points. Spurs had to go to Barcelona. Inter would host an eliminated PSV side, knowing all it had to do was better Tottenham’s result.
So there was life. But tenuous, decrepit life.
The fourth death: Lucas, Part I
Matchday 6, however, was different. At Wembley, Spurs hadn’t so much cheated death as put it off until a later date. After 90 minutes at Camp Nou, they would either be dead or very much alive – upright, healthy, standing just as tall as 15 others.
But the former outcome was always the more likely, and especially after Ousmane Dembele put Barcelona ahead inside seven minutes. He’d abused poor Kyle Walker-Peters. Left the inexperienced 21-year-old prone on the grass, unable to bear his face to the world.
Hirving Lozano soon gave PSV a surprising lead in Italy. But few expected that to hold, and it didn’t. Icardi equalized in the second half. Tottenham still trailed in Spain. Inter was on track to go through.
With Barca ahead and Spurs stretched, Philippe Coutinho could have killed them off once and for all. Catalan clocks showed 83:04. The Brazilian drove into the box ... and for the second time that night rung Hugo Lloris’ left-hand post.
A little over a minute later, at the other end ... Lucas Moura, 1-1. Away fans in Camp Nou’s upper reaches trembling uncontrollably with joy.
Forget the knockout rounds. Forget what you’ve witnessed in April and May. This, surely, was the most improbable turnaround in Champions League group stage history.
Yet it’s been lost in the shuffle of what it enabled. And understandably so.
The fifth death: VAR the savior
Spurs finally gave palpitating hearts a reprieve in the Round of 16, dispatching Borussia Dortmund 4-0 on aggregate. That set up a quarterfinal showdown with Manchester City. An unforgettable 180 minutes. And an unparalleled ending.
Son Heung-Min won the first leg in London 1-0. But in under an hour back in Manchester a week later, rampant City had hit four. They’d turned the tie around. Tottenham, without an injured Kane, had finally met its match. Or so we thought.
Fernando Llorente – or, rather, Fernando Llorente’s hip, and a sheepish sliver of his arm – had other ideas.
By now you likely know the rest. At every previous stage of this topsy-turvy journey, Spurs had been heading out. Heading out against Inter. Heading out in Barcelona. Heading out down 4-3 on aggregate with 20 minutes left in Manchester.
When Raheem Sterling twirled toward the Etihad corner in rapturous celebration, 92:23 on the clock, a crushing “5” on the scoreboard, Spurs were out. They’d lost. Choked away a place in the semifinals in the Spursiest of manners, with an ill-advised and calamitously executed back-pass.
The bottle job was so typical, so perfectly Tottenham. And the imagery, of heads in hands, torsos bowed in despair, bodies strewn ... it was so familiar.
This entire farcical fairytale, though, was more potent than any of it. VAR had its say. The referee raised his hand, cuing unprecedented emotional swings and resurrections. Spurs were dead. Then they were semifinalists.
The six death: Lucas, Part II-IV
And now they are finalists. With a little over 35 minutes gone on Wednesday night, UEFA’s play-by-play commentator wailed: “Ajax are on their way to the Champions League final!” An hour and a half later, Spurs were.
It was the most preposterous escape yet, via a left-footed Lucas Moura second-half hat-trick, the third of three goals in the sixth of five added minutes. Along the way, there was another pivotal Fernando Llorente hip, a midfielder who prevented his own goalkeeper from corralling a loose ball, and six consecutive absurd touches in a crowded penalty area. There were posts rattled at either end, a goal-line clearance, and an ingenious flick from Dele Alli that nobody is talking about.
The boundless annals of this beautiful game, though, are littered with late winners. It has had its fair share of astounding comebacks. Heck, it had one 24 hours earlier.
It has never had a Champions League finalist who was 13 minutes away from elimination on Matchday 4, 11 minutes away from elimination on Matchday 5, six minutes away from elimination on Matchday 6, 18 minutes and a controversial, recently implemented technology away from elimination in the quarters, and now negative-one second away from elimination in the semis.
It has never told a tale this unbelievable. And, incredibly, it still has a final chapter to narrate.
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