Amsterdam: Seemingly already down and out of the Champions League back in October, and at risk of missing out on next season’s competition during a recent slump in results, now Mauricio Pochettino and Tottenham Hotspur find themselves, improbably, through to the final.
“No pain, no gain” was the phrase an emotional Pochettino used after Wednesday’s stirring comeback to beat Ajax 3-2 in the second leg of their semi-final in Amsterdam, a Lucas Moura hat-trick taking Spurs through on away goals.
But, he added, “it was all worth it” with an all-English showdown against Liverpool to come in the biggest club game of all in Madrid on June 1, just two months after the opening of a new stadium, which Spurs had been hoping would propel them to the next level.
When Pochettino spoke of “pain”, he was not simply referring to this season, but to the five years since he arrived in north London from Southampton, a period in which he has fought to establish Spurs as a top-four force in the Premier League and regulars in the Champions League.
In England, the phrase “to do a Spurs” was never a good thing, but that has changed.
“To have brought the club to the final of the Champions League is very close to a miracle,” Pochettino said at the Johan Cruyff Arena on Wednesday.
“No one believed in us at the beginning of the season, we are so close, almost in the top four and the 1st of June in Madrid playing the final against Liverpool.
“I think this amazing season in our new home and this chapter that we are going to close now — to close the chapter playing a final, and if we win, it would be an amazing book.”
Doubts were raised about Tottenham’s capacity to maintain a challenge at home, never mind abroad, after they failed to make any new signings last summer while so many of their leading players had been involved at the World Cup to the end.
Indeed, Lucas remains their last new signing, bought from Paris Saint-Germain in January 2018.
They lost their first two Champions League group games and, after a 2-2 draw at PSV Eindhoven left them with one point from nine, they seemed dead and buried.
However, they scraped through, then ousted Borussia Dortmund, edged out Manchester City in an epic quarter-final, and now they have beaten Ajax, coming back from 3-0 down on aggregate and with their talisman, Harry Kane, out injured.
“This year has been crazy — and not just for us — but already after three matches in the group stage we were practically eliminated and now we find ourselves in the final,” said goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
Spurs’ achievement has certainly come against the odds, but at the same time it is a confirmation of their new status as one of the game’s leading powers.
They climbed into the top 10 of the most recent Deloitte Football Money League, just behind bitter rivals Arsenal, with revenue of £369 million last year.
They recently announced a world-record net profit of £113 million, although the cost of their new, 62,062-seat stadium rose above £1 billion. The possibilities for the future are endless.
Tottenham’s recent Premier League form has been poor, but their advantage over fifth-placed Arsenal heading into Sunday’s final round of matches is such that they will surely finish in the top four again.
It will be a fourth straight top-four finish after just two in the previous 25 years.
This is their third consecutive Champions League campaign. Previously, they had enjoyed just one, reaching the last eight in 2010-11, along with an appearance in the European Cup semi-finals in 1961-62.
They are now through to their fifth European final, their first since winning the Uefa Cup in 1984.
Since lifting the FA Cup in 1991, the day Paul Gascoigne shattered his knee in a reckless challenge, Spurs’ only success has come in the League Cup.
Now Liverpool stand between them and Champions League glory. Tottenham have won just one of their last 14 matches against the Anfield side.
“Leave me to relax a little bit. There will be time to talk about Liverpool,” said Pochettino.
“They are heroes too, and of course it’s going to be an amazing final between two English teams that for sure we are going to enjoy a lot.”