Heung-min Son stood in the mixed zone at the Johan Cruijff ArenA in complete disbelief at what had happened. Tottenham just overturned a three-goal deficit in the second half of their semi-final second leg in Amsterdam – courtesy of a Lucas Moura hat-trick, the last goal coming in the 96th minute – to reach their first-ever Champions League final.
When asked whether he thought Jan Vertonghen’s 86th-minute header that cannoned back off the crossbar was their last chance to equalise, the South Korean was lost for words. His hands on his head in-between pensive exhales, he explained: “It’s very difficult to describe. I still believed it. I don’t know what the feeling was, I just believed it.”
Moura, the hero of Amsterdam, was similarly awestruck by his own feat. Visibly overcome with emotion and on the verge of tears throughout his interview, the Brazilian tried to describe his thoughts. “I don’t have words to explain this moment,” he said. “I always believed that it was possible to come here to win. It’s impossible to explain.”
Perhaps this is the crux of what Mauricio Pochettino has repeatedly referred to as “energia universal” – an indescribable trust in something beyond comprehension that makes the impossible seem possible. An intangible aura that acts as an all-pervasive guiding power. “Decisions, personal relationships and absolutely everything else are a matter of energy,” Pochettino wrote in his 2017 book Brave New World. “I’ve had the ability to notice something powerful that you can’t see but does exist.”
It’s essentially the Argentine’s faith that people, places and events have an energy, and these energies interact with one another; that nothing happens by chance and everything is a consequence of something else.
This resonated from his press conference at Hotspur Way the day after their 3-2 win at Ajax. “It was the most relaxed half-time in the last six months,” Pochettino recalled. That’s strange. Coming in to the break 2-0 down on the night and 3-0 down on aggregate and the dressing room atmosphere was one of serene tranquillity? Surely not. But Pochettino said he always believed.
He recalled an anecdote from earlier that day in which Danny Rose asked him whether he truly, truly believed that Spurs could still win at half-time. He unerringly answered: “I said yes, I was so relaxed. I was so upset with destiny in this moment because I thought the game was even.” His belief in the energy of the universe underpinned that tranquillity. He knew it was Tottenham’s night.
There were signs throughout the semi-final. With Ajax leading 1-0 in north London, Hakim Ziyech began a counter-attack in the 78th minute from inside his own half. Toby Alderweireld tried to intercept, but he only ushered the ball into Noussair Mazraoui, who continued the drive. Mazraoui squared to Dusan Tadic, but instead of shooting, he helped it on to David Neres. Unmarked, eight yards out, Neres hit it first-time and it seemed to head straight for the bottom-corner. Hugo Lloris was rooted to the spot, absolutely powerless. But the ball somehow cascaded off the inside of the post and Moussa Sissoko cleared. How un-Spursy. Usually events contrive in such a way that the ball ricochets off Lloris and over the line.
This was only half the story, though. In the 79th minute of the second leg, with the score poised at 3-2 on aggregate, Ziyech wasted a glorious chance to end the game. As Donny van de Beek saw Vertonghen block his shot on the edge of the box, he managed to keep it alive and set up Ziyech. The midfielder lined it up, put his right boot through it and Lloris – diving this time – was relieved to see the ball crash off the post again.
“You start to wonder whether it’s going to be Tottenham’s night,” Darren Fletcher incredulously exclaimed on commentary. “Things are happening,” Jermaine Jenas added. He couldn’t quite articulate what those “things” were, but he was right.
Lloris made an excellent save to deny Ziyech in added time, Spurs seized possession and Sissoko launched a speculative route one pass. Fernando Llorente held it up, laid it off to Dele Alli, and then it happened. There was a slip. Lisandro Magallan made a crucial misstep allowing Alli to reach the ball first and play an inch-perfect pass into Moura’s path that he guided into the bottom corner. That’s not simple coincidence.
Walking through Dam Square after the game, all you could hear were Spurs fans arguing that “it’s written”, referring back to previous events in the campaign to contend their point. This goes right back to the beginning when Spurs had one point from their opening three games, losing to Internazionale and Barcelona before drawing in Eindhoven.
Although subsequent late goals against Inter and PSV at home put them in a position to qualify, it was out of their control. It was up to the universe. Tottenham needed a result in Barcelona, one that matched Inter’s against a far less formidable opponent. A typical too little, too late situation where Spurs fight valiantly but fall short, right? “I was relaxed. I always believed it was possible,” Pochettino told BT Sport after the 1-1 draw at the Camp Nou.
“In football nothing is impossible. We showed that it’s always possible if you have the belief.” But why was he so calm? Despite Moura’s 85th-minute equaliser and the full-time whistle blowing, Spurs’ progression still hinged on what transpired at the San Siro. And then it happened. Energia universal was at work. Keita Balde played Mauro Icardi through on goal in the final minute, but Nick Viergever ran back as if his life depended on it and managed to get a foot in and poke the ball out of the Argentine’s path, preventing a certain goal and sending Spurs through.
And then there’s the quarter-final against Manchester City. And that crazy second leg at the Etihad. But lest we forget the first leg and that 13th-minute penalty awarded somewhat softly by the VAR for a handball against Rose. However aggrieved Spurs felt, their superb start was rewarded as Lloris saved a tame effort from Sergio Aguero.
Interestingly, that was the second of two consecutive penalties Aguero missed in the space of a month, which happened to coincide with Lloris’ three straight penalty saves of the 2018/19 season, the first ones that campaign. It sounds coincidental, naturally, but the concept of energia universal states that this was not a chance occurrence, rather a consequence of something else.
This was just the beginning, though. By the 11th minute of the second leg, it was 2-2. Raheem Sterling made it 3-2 ten minutes later and Aguero 4-2 in the second half. Then it really kicked off. Llorente, a 41st-minute substitute, grabbed the winner with what looked like a combination of his hip and elbow from a corner. Was it handball? Was it a goal? The VAR thought the latter. Then it really kicked off – again.
Sterling – on a hat-trick after two first-half goals – let Aguero’s pass roll across his body, sold Alderweireld a dummy and tucked it into the bottom-right corner in the final minute. The Etihad erupted. Pep Guardiola sprinted into the distance. “They’re checking for a potential offside,” said a bewildered Darren Fletcher on commentary. Wait, what? Who? Surely not. But somehow, some way, Aguero drifted into an offside position in the build-up and referee Cuneyt Cakir didn’t even have to check the screen himself. Now that’s Spursy – except Spurs weren’t the victims.
If energia universal is a spiritual concept that nothing happens by chance and everything is a consequence of something else, then why have Spurs reached the Champions League final? What is it a consequence of?
“At the beginning of the season, no one believed destiny was going to reward us,” Pochettino explained the day after that classic at the Etihad. “I believe in the universe, but you need to work to have the option to be rewarded by destiny. There’s an energy there that helps the people that work. Destiny, working very hard and a little bit of luck.”
This is the key to energia universal. Work hard and the universe will reward you with little elements of fortune that go your way. Both Mauricio Pochettino and his players have worked extraordinarily hard to get to where they are and you can say this because if they hadn’t, then they simply wouldn’t be there. And the universe duly rewarded them. Perhaps through a missed penalty or an offside call; or a dubious goal; or a last-ditch tackle; or a shot hitting the post. Twice.
By Oli Stein @steinoliver_