Highlights - Leinster vs La RochelleMay 28
Exclusive - One year on, Lucas Moura relives his stunning Champions League hat-trick on one of Tottenham's greatest ever European nights
In the second episode of My Greatest, our series of articles chronicling iconic sportsmen and women’s most memorable achievements, the Brazilian forward revels in his starring role as Spurs defeated Ajax after a jaw-dropping 3-2 tie in Amsterdam.
Tottenham Hotspur forward Lucas Moura revists his stunning hat-trick against Ajax in last year's Champions League semi-final in the latest edition of 'My Greatest'
The Johan Cruijff ArenA is in full voice as Danish midfielder Lasse Schone trots over to the corner flag, placing the ball down carefully before backtracking to survey the scene inside Tottenham’s penalty area.
Ajax’s tails are up.
Barely three minutes into the game, the Dutch side already look likely to add to their 1-0 aggregate lead over visitors Spurs; a first Champions League final since 1996 beckons for Eric Ten Haag’s men.
- Born in Sao Paolo, Brazil
- Made 74 appearances for his hometown club, São Paulo Futebol Clube, before moving to Europe
- Paris Saint-Germain shelled out a reported £38m for his services in January 2013
- Scored 34 goals in 153 games for the French giants
- Joined Tottenham Hotspur for £25m in January 2018
- Capped 34 times for the Brazilian national team
Only a smart save from French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris has kept the scores level, denying Dusan Tadic an early opener from a deflected effort inside the box and sending it out for a corner.
Set-piece specialist Schone gives the signal; left arm aloft, the 33-year-old canters towards the ball and whips a sumptuous cross towards the penalty spot.
Captain Matthijs de Ligt races in on it, leaping high above Dele Alli to plant a towering header into the far corner, capping a perfectly choreographed sequence straight from the training ground.
“It’s the worst possible start for Spurs,” BT Sport’s commentator Darren Fletcher groans reluctantly as the 19-year-old takes off in celebration, arms outstretched as he soaks up the euphoria inside the sold-out stadium.
Minutes later, Spurs almost find an instant reply as Son Heung-min’s low effort from the byline wrong-foots goalkeeper Andre Onana, kissing the base of the Cameroonian’s near post and bouncing clear of Christian Eriksen’s despairing dive.
Spurs regroup over the next 25 minutes.
Not for the first time in the tournament, their backs are against the wall but they continue to fight, with further half-chances falling to Eriksen, Son and Lucas Moura.
But then, the hammer blow.
Kieran Trippier loses the ball under heavy pressure a yard inside his own half and suddenly Ajax break through Donny van der Beek as three red and white shirts close in on a trio of backtracking Spurs defenders.
Tadic takes possession, dribbling into the penalty box before cutting an inviting pass back to the onrushing Hakim Ziyech.
The blonde-haired Moroccan does not hesitate, unleashing a rasping drive on goal that curls away from a helpless Lloris inside the far post to make it 2-0 to Ajax on the night and 3-0 on aggregate.
Shaken, it is all Spurs can do to play out the half without incident, their Champions League dreams in tatters after a nightmare 45 minutes.
A crescendo of noise greets the half-time whistle as the visiting 11 trudge towards the dugout, heads bowed as their grimacing faces disappear into the bowels of the stadium.
But one Spurs player remains visibly positive.
“I was so, so confident. I was sure that we would win that game,” Moura reveals.
“Even after the first half, 2-0 down, I was so confident.”
I’m sat opposite the Brazilian forward at Tottenham’s futuristic training ground, nine months on from that night in the Dutch capital.
A broad smile creeps across his face as we begin to reminisce over what would eventually become one of the most incredible games of football in Champions League history.
“I think the first leg at home, we gave them too much space. That is what they need because they love to play with ball possession and they have quick players and it was difficult to find space,” the 27-year-old explains.
“The second half at our stadium, we were much better but it was not enough.
“In the second leg, I think because we had only 45 minutes to change our life, to change the game, we gave everything. It was perfect.
“For me, they were one of the best teams in the Champions League. Really good players and tactically so good.
“It was so difficult to recover the ball. They were a very, very good team – and a young team, so everyone was fresh and they ran so quick. It was really difficult to play against them.
“We worked so hard [in training] that week and the few days before the game but Mauricio [Pochettino] tried to make us focus on our mentality because this kind of game you need to be ready tactically and technically.
“Having a strong mentality is so important. It’s the most beautiful competition in the world and two big teams, in a semi-final, so we needed to be ready in our minds. It was what he tried to tell us.”
Against the backdrop of a spluttering domestic campaign, Pochettino’s demand to see an improvement in his side’s determination may have been a case of 'easier said than done'.
Since thrashing Borussia Dortmund in the last 16, Spurs had lost seven of their next 11 games in all competitions as they headed into the second leg against Ajax.
But the steadfast spirit inside the dressing room shines through as the second half gets underway.
“After the second goal, I felt a little bit sad. I felt that it would be more difficult but I was so confident still,” Moura continues.
“I don’t know how to explain it to you but after the Manchester City game, we’d played against one of the best teams in the world. I was sure that after we beat City we would arrive in the final. I was sure.
“That’s what I put in my mind and I went to the game with this mentality: 'We will win. It doesn’t matter about the conditions, it doesn’t matter about the results. We will win this game.'”
Seven minutes into the second half, the fightback begins.
Gathering the ball in his stride from the left side of the box, Son lines up a thunderbolt from 25 yards that is blocked by three Ajax defenders rushing to close him down.
The back line scatters in a rare moment of panic as Eriksen is afforded time and space on the edge of the penalty area, picking out an unseen Alli creeping towards the far post.
The former Ajax playmaker's tempting cross is blasted towards the top corner off the instep of an airborne Alli but Onana makes a stunning reflex stop to palm the ball out for play. Moura, watching from the edge of the penalty box, clasps his hands together and glances skyward.
Reliving the chance as he watches the match back alongside me, the former Paris Saint-Germain forward inhales sharply through his teeth.
“Aye, aye, aye!” he gasps, “After this action, of course it started to be difficult because when you lose some opportunities it becomes harder.
“But just after that, I scored. And I remember that in the changing room at half-time, the coach said: 'We need to score one goal. If we score one goal, we are in the game. If we score one goal, the motivation will change, you get more confidence.'
“And right after this chance, I scored. After that, we had time to score two more.”
Right on cue, we watch the moment unfold as Danny Rose plays a searching cross-field pass that Moura volleys deftly on to Alli bursting through the Ajax defence.
The England international carries the ball ten yards before attempting to chop back on to his left foot with a heavy touch that runs away from his control, but Moura bursts on to the loose ball.
“I don’t think it was a pass from Dele!” Moura laughs, “but I knew that he wouldn’t take the ball because he tried to dribble and the defender was closer to the ball than him.
“I just started to run - so fast! [laughs] I put everything into it. I said: ‘I will take the ball and I will score.'”
With one touch, Moura races past Schone’s slide tackle, leaving Frenkie de Jong trailing helplessly in his wake as he slides home into the bottom corner with his left foot.
“I needed to be confident and one thing that I have learned since I’ve been in Europe is that I am a striker and I need to be in the box to score,” Moura adds when I ask about the finish with his weaker foot.
“When I gave the ball to Dele and he was maybe five metres in front of me, I didn’t stay still. I started to run with him and fortunately I could take the ball and score the goal.”
Pochettino's half-time assertion is right. One goal shakes the foundations of an Ajax lead that had looked unsurpassable at the interval.
After the second goal to go 2-2 and the ball hitting the post, they lost two opportunities – good opportunities – and I said: 'This game is for us.'
- Lucas Moura
Within minutes, the Premier League giants are in again, forcing eight Ajax players back into their own penalty box.
Kettled narrowly across the face of goal, the hosts have left the wings exposed and Son takes full advantage, sliding Trippier into acres of space on the right, around 12 yards from goal.
The right-back sends a low cross to the six-yard line, hitting an open Fernando Llorente with the goal gaping, but Onana springs to life once more, making another miraculous stop with his left arm outstretched.
Llorente’s effort is parried back out into the danger area but as Onana dives to retrieve the loose ball, the keeper tangles with a defender amid the pandemonium.
Llorente’s effort is parried back out into the danger area but as Onana dives to retrieve the loose ball, the keeper tangles with a defender amid the pandemonium.
Pouncing on the chance, Moura takes one, two, three, four touches, pirouetting almost 360 degrees as red-and-white shirts close in from every angle.
Slaloming through the tangle of bodies, Moura finds a slice of daylight, sending a thumping left-footed shot through the crowd and into the net.
Back in north London, Moura blows out his cheeks as he watches the footage.
“The keeper made an unbelievable save [from Llorente],” he says.
“But for sure that was the nicest goal and my hardest one because there were too many people inside the box and I was facing the opposite direction to the goal. I needed to be super quick with my footwork and try to find any space to shoot.
“When I was younger, I played futsal for ten years. That helped me a lot. If you see this goal, it is 100% a futsal player because of the footwork and the small space. The area was so crowded that I needed to think really quick to find the space. It was a very nice goal.”
Pochettino gesticulates wildly, geeing his players up for one final push, one more goal that would see Tottenham through to the Champions League final.
As he jogs back to the centre circle, the camera captures Moura looking skyward once again, bargaining with a higher power.
“I was just saying thank you…and after I was asking for just one more,” he laughs.
“Not for me to score but one more goal for our team!
“After that goal the game became crazy. We scored the second, we had at least 30 minutes to score just one more. We had done the most difficult part. I was calm, relaxed. I said: ‘We are playing so well, we will score one more goal, for sure.' But the game was crazy.”
The clock ticks towards 90 minutes with the game hanging precariously in the balance. Ajax lead 3-2 on aggregate but a goal either way would seal the fate of one team.
The tension at pitchside is palpable.
Ziyech comes close with an effort from near the penalty spot but the 26-year-old drags the chance wide.
Twelve minutes remain in the game when the Dutch-born playmaker ghosts free into the box once again and goes even closer, slapping the woodwork from 16 yards out.
“When the ball hit the post, I was even more sure that we would win,” Moura tells me.
“After the second goal to go 2-2 and the ball hitting the post, they lost two opportunities – good opportunities – and I said: 'This game is for us.'”
Those Spurs fans who have made the short hop over from London seem less convinced of their fate. Tortured faces perched high in the away section roar their team on in hope rather than expectation.
One chance: that’s all they want.
It comes in the 87th minute. A corner from the right is whipped towards the target man, Llorente, whose mere presence draws three Ajax defenders towards him.
A miscued jump sees the ball bounce off Llorente’s back towards an unmarked Jan Vertonghen six yards out and the Belgian powers an effort towards goal, willing it to drop into the far corner.
It rebounds off the crossbar and falls to Vertonghen again but he shanks a desperate volley that is cleared easily by the Ajax defence.
“I thought this was impossible. I was sure Jan would score," Moura says, mouth aghast as he watches a replay of the agonising goalmouth scramble.
“We could feel the fans and the game, the feeling of being so stressed. We could feel that the game was almost finished. So when he lost this opportunity... aye, aye! But then I said: 'Come on, we will have another one.'"
Tired legs traipse across the turf as the game creeps deep into stoppage time but a youthful Ajax continue to pick holes in Tottenham’s back line.
Two minutes past the 90, substitute Daley Sinkgraven chases down a raking pass sent over the top, squaring up the backtracking Moussa Sissoko before teeing up Ziyech for yet another effort on goal.
Lloris stays big, palming the ball back into play and Tadic can only fire the rebound high into the stand; Tottenham survive.
Ten seconds left.
Tactics go out of the window.
Spurs search frantically for a way forward as Ajax press relentlessly; one clearance would surely book the Dutch side’s ticket to Madrid.
Son dribbles across the halfway line but can’t squeeze through. Instead, Sissoko takes over at the base of the centre circle inside his own half.
With no other option, the Frenchman hoofs a hopeful long ball up towards the area that Llorente does well to flick on, finding Alli free on the edge of the box with a deft touch.
With bodies closing in on him from all sides, Alli slices a first-time ball into the area.
And suddenly, in a blur of green and navy blue, there is the onrushing Moura, who twists his body to send a shot low to the goalkeeper’s left and into the net.
“I have seen every angle of this goal,” Moura gasps, shaking his head in disbelief as we watch the jaw-dropping sequence unfold once again.
“I have seen every moment. It was amazing. I remember every detail. It was the best feeling in my career. The best game. It was amazing, unbelievable.
“I knew that the referee would blow the whistle and I felt that it was our last attack. I remember thinking: ‘I need to get myself in the box. When I see the ball, I will shoot. It doesn’t matter if I hit the defenders.'
“When I saw the ball in front of me, I just said ‘yes’, and I shot. I didn’t know how to celebrate! In the end I just jumped and slid - but it was amazing.
“I don’t know how to explain it. I cannot say it was impossible. But it was almost impossible to happen because three goals, all with my left foot, and the last goal in the last second… wow.”
The Spurs bench erupts into euphoria.
Eric Dier, Ben Davies and Victor Wanyama pile in for a bear hug from Pochettino, who roars through tears, one clenched fist held aloft.
On the pitch, Moura is buried by a sea of Tottenham bodies as withered Ajax players slump to the ground, their Champions League hopes crushed in the cruellest fashion.
“I can’t believe it, Fletch, it’s unbelievable,” former Spurs star Jermaine Jenas croaks from BT Sport’s commentary booth, his voice drenched in emotion.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.”
The two teams line up once again but the restart is almost a formality; the final moments of the game pass without mention as the shell-shocked congregation inside the Johan Cruijff Arena come to terms with what they’ve just witnessed.
Seconds later, the comeback is complete; a shrill blast of the referee’s whistle brings proceedings to an end and Tottenham, somehow, are Champions League finalists.
“In the changing room, we were partying, dancing, water spraying in the air,” Moura recalls.
“Loads of music. It was amazing, an amazing changing room. The best I have felt. It was incredible.
"It’s impossible not to cry after this game! When the referee finished the game, I was down on the grass. I couldn’t believe it. I was just praying and saying thank you to God."
Relieving the experience alongside me today, the emotion begins to stir once again as Moura shifts in his chair, shaking his head.
Memories from that night are almost visible in the whites of his eyes as he considers the impact of the crowning moment in his career.
“During the game, after I scored my second goal, I was thinking about my family. I was imagining them watching this from Brazil,” he says.
“It’s the semi-final, I’ve got two goals. They must have been going crazy, so nervous and excited. After the game, when I had scored my third goal, I called my wife and she was crying so much.
“It was amazing because I scored and we won the game but at the same time, I was so happy that I could give this moment as a gift to my family. I cannot be thankful enough to God.”
Tottenham’s captivating Champions League campaign was ultimately denied a fairytale ending in Madrid three weeks later, as they came up short in the tournament finale against Jurgen Klopp’s imposing Liverpool.
Mohamed Salah tucked away an early penalty before Divock Origi extinguished Spurs’ hopes late on, as the Reds held firm for a 2-0 victory at the Wanda Metropolitano.
Yet while the wounds of defeat still feel fresh to many in north London, memories of that night in Amsterdam will be treasured forever by the Tottenham faithful - and the Brazilian superstar who made it happen.