By Richard Martin
MADRID (Reuters) – For many years Tottenham Hotspur were the butt of jokes from rival fans for falling just short of winning the big prizes, but they are now hoping Saturday’s Champions League final will give them the perfect opportunity to have the last laugh.
Despite a rich history and one of the biggest fan bases in England, Tottenham have won only two trophies — the domestic League Cup in 1999 and 2008 — in the last two decades and until Mauricio Pochettino transformed their fortunes, they were renowned for their failures.
They narrowly missed out on Champions League qualification in 2006 as hours before their final match of the season against West Ham United, more than 10 players fell ill with food poisoning after having dinner at the team’s hotel. The now infamous ‘Lasagne-gate’ incident led them to being beaten by West Ham and allowed north London rivals Arsenal to snatch away the Champions League spot.
Six years later they blew a 10-point lead over Arsenal to finish fourth and were again denied a Champions League berth because Chelsea won Europe’s elite competition.
Rival fans came up with the adjective ‘Spursy’ to describe these failures and even Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini poked fun at them after the Serie A champions came from behind to beat the Londoners in the round of 16 last year, saying “this is the history of Tottenham”.
Spurs have silenced their critics this season with their miraculous path to Saturday’s final against Liverpool.
They enjoyed an enormous slice of luck when Raheem Sterling’s goal for Manchester City in the quarter-final second-leg was ruled out for offside by a matter of inches after a VAR-review and Spurs sneaked through on away goals.
Tottenham’s Champions League hopes also seemed dead and buried when they trailed Ajax Amsterdam 3-0 on aggregate with just 45 minutes to go in the second leg of their semi-final.
Ajax hit the post in both games and missed numerous chances before the unlikely figure of Lucas Moura scored a hat-trick for Spurs as they pulled off another away goals triumph in the dying seconds.
“I don’t know if it’s destiny. I think at the moment we’ve just been lucky,” said midfielder Christian Eriksen, who described Sterling’s ruled out goal in stoppage time in the second leg in Manchester as “mad, mad, mad”.
“There were a lot of ups and downs, it was very exciting as a fan but a bit unnerving,” he added.
“It was nerve-wracking and it was dramatic. We’re just happy we were on the right side.”
Eriksen credited Pochettino for showing ambition when he took charge in 2014 after Andre Villas-Boas and Tim Sherwood’s hapless tenures and he believes Spurs will no longer be underestimated.
“We want to aim high. And he (Pochettino) was aiming high. When you compare with when he came, if you talked about winning the Champions League with Spurs, a lot of people would have said ‘that’s not going to happen’,” he said.
“But we have a chance. It’s something that will change how people look at the club. We’re not going to be Spursy, or whatever they call it. As a player you just go for the moment and hope it falls your way.”
(Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)