The next two matches for Tottenham Hotspur could result in the highest of highs or the lowest of lows, depending on their respective outcomes.
In a favourable position to claim a top-four spot but needing one point to guarantee it, Spurs look to avoid a letdown following their dramatic advance to the Champions League final when they face Everton at White Hart Lane on Sunday.
Tottenham (23-1-13) were dead to rights at halftime Wednesday in Amsterdam, trailing Ajax 2-0 in their second-leg Champions League semifinal and 3-0 on aggregate. A threadbare squad without injured talisman Harry Kane had 45 minutes to salvage an already-remarkable never-say-die European campaign, and yet incredibly and unbelievably, they did just that.
It started with Mauricio Pochettino introducing veteran striker Fernando Llorente at halftime, which created a dual shift in creating a target forward to occupy Ajax’s central defenders while Lucas Moura, Heung-Min Son and Dele Alli ran tirelessly underneath him.
Moura, who foreshadowed his three-goal performance on the biggest stage with one versus Huddersfield Town last month, began the fightback on 55 minutes with a composed finish on a counter. Four minutes later, there he was again, stabbing a shot past Andre Onana in a goal-mouth scramble to put everything up for grabs.
Moura and Spurs then took it all from Ajax, turning a Dutch dream into a nightmare never to be forgotten. As the clock ran off the final seconds of the allotted five minutes of stoppage time, Llorente knocked down a long ball into the path of Alli, who laid it off for the on-rushing Moura.
It was not the purest of left-footed shots, but it was enough to beat Onana inside the right post and set off frenzied celebrations among Spurs players, traveling supporters in Holland, and Spurs backers throughout north London.
The result – a date opposite Liverpool in three weeks’ time in Madrid for Ol’ Big Ears.
“I don’t have words to explain this moment!” Moura said to Spurs TV. “It’s very special for me, I am very, very happy and very proud of my teammates. Of course, I need to share this with all my teammates, my family, my friends. I always believed it was possible to come here, to win and to go to the final.”
Pochettino was so overcome he broke down in tears in the post-match interview. The Argentine, though, may have done something bigger than getting Tottenham to their first Champions League final in club history – he may have finally banished the “Spursy” mentality to the rubbish bin.
Long derided for being a star-crossed club unable to deal with success while playing third fiddle to Chelsea and Arsenal, Tottenham’s shortcomings could always be summed up with the pithy line: “That’s so Spursy.”
But after recovering from the brink of elimination in group play – recall Spurs had one point through the first three matches before finding winners and equalisers in the 80th minute and later in the last three — and then surviving their rollicking quarterfinal tie versus Manchester City in which they also advanced via away goals, Pochettino has changed the culture of the club and confirmed himself as one of Europe’s best.
“It’s amazing trying to describe with words,” he said. “It’s an amazing feeling. I am so grateful to this group of players. For me, they are not heroes, they are superheroes. They never gave up and the faith, the belief was amazing. I want to congratulate them all. The players owned the football. I am so proud to be their manager.”
Pochettino pieced together patchwork sides for a club that stood pat through two transfer windows, an unprecedented “non-move” in the big-money era of the Premier League. It is why Spurs’ depth has been tested to the breaking point and beyond with injuries at seemingly every position but keeper, and even there, World Cup winner Hugo Lloris’ self-inflicted drink-driving charge added to the difficulties.
Yet Lloris came up with a string of important saves as Spurs poured forward, none bigger than his stop on Dusan Tadic in the second minute of stoppage time.
“It’s one of my favourite moments since I’ve played for the Club – hopefully the best is ahead of us,” Lloris said. “We have to enjoy this moment. It is unique, especially the way the game ended. It’s fantastic. This is why we love football.”
All is far from done and dusted, however, for Spurs as it pertains to next season. Tottenham should finish fourth even with a loss and an Arsenal win due to their superior goal difference. But heavy outcomes in those directions create a mathematical possibility of St. Totteringham Day for the first time in three years. That scenario, plus a loss to Liverpool in Madrid, would knock Spurs out of the Champions League for 2019-20.
Besides Kane’s absence, Spurs will be without Son and defender Juan Foyth, who both picked up red cards in last weekend’s 1-0 loss at Bournemouth. Tottenham have taken just 10 points from their last 11 league matches (3-1-7).
Everton (15-8-14) arrive in north London all but mathematically assured of a top-half finish, and a draw would likely keep them eighth. But like Pochettino, Marco Silva is trying to enact a culture change at Goodison Park. And a huge jumping point for Everton would be to finally break their duck on the road against Big Six sides.
The Toffees are now at 33 matches winless (0-10-23) at the grounds of Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, and Manchester United in league play since a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford in December 2013. Everton have taken just one point from their five trips this term, holding out for a point at Stamford Bridge, but are sprinting to the tape with confidence with 20 points from their last 10 matches (6-2-2).
“We have achieved some good results against teams in the top-six recently,” Silva said at his Friday press conference, referring to home wins over Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester United. “We have not beaten one of them away and it is one more opportunity to do that, to show our quality and we will try to do that on Sunday.”
The Toffees have posted eight clean sheets in their last 10 matches, raising their total to 14 for the season. They have not conceded in 291 minutes since Ryan Babel scored for Fulham on April 13, and their 44 goals shipped are 14 less than last term.
Everton have already exceeded their 2017-18 totals for both points and goals scored.
Spurs, though, are seeking their fifth win on the bounce over the Toffees to extend their 12-match unbeaten run (7-5-0) in the series. Tottenham put Everton to the sword at Goodison Park during the holiday fixtures, storming to a 6-2 victory as Kane and Son each had braces.
The Toffees are 0-3-7 at Tottenham Hotspur since Steven Pienaar provided the margin of a 1-0 victory in 2008 and 3-7-17 there overall in the Premier League era.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Tottenham Hotspur 1, Everton 2.
OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 38 PREVIEWS
Brighton and Hove Albion (9-9-19) vs. Manchester City (31-2-4)
Liverpool (29-7-1) vs. Wolverhampton (16-9-12)
Leicester City (15-6-16) vs. Chelsea (21-8-8)
Crystal Palace (13-7-17) vs. Bournemouth (13-6-18)
(Lucas Moura/Dele Alli photo courtesy Tottenham Hotspur official Twitter account)
(Jordan Pickford photo courtesy Jordan Pickford official Twitter account)