High drama in the European Champions League

Earlier this week, two English teams, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, were staring at defeat in the semifinals of the European Champions League. With only 45 minutes (plus stoppage time) to play, Liverpool needed three goals to defeat mighty Barcelona, and that was assuming Barca didn’t score. Similarly, Tottenham needed three goals to defeat Ajax of Amstersdam assuming Ajax didn’t score.

To make matter worse, both English teams were without their top scorer. The Red Shite were missing Mohamed Salah who led the English Premier League in scoring last season. Salah made Time Magazine’s list of most influential people of 2019 (somehow), but he wasn’t going to influence the Champions League semifinal.

Spurs were missing Harry Kane. He’s the most prolific EPL scorer of the past few seasons and was the top scorer at last year’s World Cup.

No matter. Liverpool scored against Barca in minutes 54, 56, and 79. Having also netted a goal in the first half, Liverpool defeated the Spanish giants 4-3 over the two-legged tie.

Tottenham left it very late. They scored in the 55th and 59th minutes, and narrowly missed when a header came back off the post with about five minutes to go. But they entered stoppage time still needing that third goal.

They still needed it as the stoppage time was about to expire. Then, in the 96th and final minute, Lucas Moura, scorer of the first two goals, slotted home one more from a clever pass by Dele Ali (his second fine assist).

It was as dramatic a finish to a soccer match as I’ve ever seen, with the exception of Manchester United’s two stoppage time goals to defeat Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final. NBC Sports is commemorating the 20th anniversary of that comeback with a special program.

Although the Liverpool and Spurs comebacks were similar in form, the two matches had a very different feel. Liverpool jumped on Barcelona from the first minute, and predictably so. Although they lost the first leg in Spain by 3-0, they dominated large portions of that match, until the great Lionel Messi turned it on late, when Liverpool, having pressed Barca all match, was tiring. With better luck, The Shite could have drawn that match 2-2. With good luck, they could have won it.

Liverpool wasn’t relying on luck in the rematch. They so dominated the first half that I expected them to score twice in the second half (which would have knotted the aggregate score and required overtime). The thing is, I also expected Barcelona to score.

Barca never looked like scoring, though, and once Liverpool got two goals, I fully expected the third.

The Tottenham-Ajax clash was another story. Ajax won the opening match 1-0 in North London, and deservedly so. Spurs have played some terrific soccer this season, but lately they’ve looked like a shadow of themselves due in part to key injuries — not just Harry Kane’s — and in part to sheer fatigue. Before yesterday’s match in Amsterdam, their record since mid-April in all competitions was 1-5.

Still, going into the second leg Spurs were just a goal down. Even without Harry Kane and even playing on the road, that hardly seemed like an insurmountable deficit.

However, Ajax doubled the deficit in the 5th minute. Worse, Spurs seemed no more able to cope with the aggressive, pressing young Ajax team than they were in London. Thus, it wasn’t surprising when Ajaz added a goal ten minutes before half time.

When the second half began my sense was that if Spurs could score one, Ajax might tighten up. They had played fearlessly for 135 minutes, but a combination of fatigue (they had pressed Spurs relentlessly in the first half) and the pressure of the big moment might cause them to waver if Tottenham could just score. Scoring three without reply still seemed like an enormous longshot, though.

Spurs were better in the second half, but weren’t dominating. Then, Lucas Moura suddenly produced two goals, one of them after the Ajax goalkeeper had made a great save only to have the ball jarred loose by one of his defenders.

With more than half an hour to go, Spurs now just needed one goal to get to 3-3 on aggregate. In that event, Spurs would go through by virtue of having scored more goals in their away match (3) than Ajax did in theirs (1).

However, Ajax made some good defensive substitutions. Meanwhile, Spurs, having worked so hard to get the two goals, looked like the more tired of the two teams.

Yet it was Tottenham that nearly scored on that header off the bar, and Tottenham that scored the miracle goal with time just about to expire.

As a result, we’ll have an all English final. Liverpool will be favored, and rightly so. They have spent the entire Premier League season proving, among other things, that they are clearly better than Spurs.

But Manchester City is also better than Spurs (and as good as Liverpool). Tottenham took them out in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Plus, Harry Kane might be back for the final (but Mo Salah might be back for Liverpool, along with Roberto Firmino, their starting center-forward).

Three goal comebacks were once almost unheard of in high stakes matches against big teams like Barcelona and Ajax. These days, they occur from time to time (Liverpool did it against AC Milan in the Champions League final of 2005). But to have this happen in both semifinals of the Champions League is truly remarkable.

Why do we see more big comebacks than in the past? I can think of two reasons.

First, some years ago a key anti-stalling rule was put in place. Now, when teams kick the ball back to their goalie, he must play it with his feet. Before he could pick it up, roll it to a teammate and the cycle would be repeated. It’s too risky to play this kind of keep-away if the goalie can’t use his hands.

Second, pressing has come into vogue. This means more turnovers and a faster tempo. Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, calls it Heavy Metal Football.

Turnovers mean more and better attacking opportunities. High tempo means worn down players. The combination seems to mean more comebacks.

By the way, Europe’s other team competition, the Europa League, will also be an all-England affair. Today, Chelsea (of West London) advanced over Frankfurt on penalty kicks ( of all things) while Arsenal (of North London) soundly defeated Valencia.

Finally, the EPL seems to be as great as it says it is.

Below, you can watch Lucas Moura’s hat trick.