Exclusive: Lloris talks Tottenham's 'miracle' run to the Champions League final
It's late in Eindhoven at the Philips Stadion, Oct. 24, just before 10 p.m. local time. Hugo Lloris is sitting on his own in the away dressing room. The Tottenham captain has just heard the stadium erupt, signaling PSV have equalised (2-2) against his side only a few seconds after the goalkeeper was sent off. Once again, Spurs had been controlling a Champions League game, like against Inter Milan a few weeks earlier -- a game they lost 2-1 -- but once again, they let their lead slip.
Lloris' teammates returned to the dressing room, the atmosphere gloomy. Tottenham had only one point after three group stage matches.
"It was a bad feeling. We were nearly out of the competition. It was important to stay positive and keep the belief, but it was very hard," Lloris said in an exclusive interview with ESPN. Mauricio Pochettino elected not to say anything to his player straight after the match. Instead, he went straight to fulfil his media duties where he would admit that Tottenham needed "a miracle" to go through to the last 16.
The flight back from the Netherlands to London was a bad one. A silent one. "After a game like that, you don't talk too much. We needed a few days to switch off from this match and to think about the rest of the competition," Lloris said. Five days later, Tottenham lost at home against Manchester City in the Premier League (1-0), capping a terrible week for the club.
However, Pochettino never gave up on qualifying for the last 16 and now, as his team prepares in Spain for Saturday's Champions League final against Liverpool, Lloris talks us through the moments and the belief that have defined this team over the past 2-3 seasons. Though their Premier League season ended in disappointing fashion as they finished fourth with a dismal run of results, their never-say-die spirit in European competition should serve them well this weekend in Madrid.
In the three days between a league win away at Wolves (3-2) on Nov. 3 and the return game with PSV at Wembley the following Tuesday night, he worked on boosting his players' psychological state of mind. He told them to keep the belief, to stay together, that a new competition was starting now with the last three remaining matches in the group stage. Yes, they still needed a miracle but who knows? Miracles do happen in football sometimes.
After two home victories, first against PSV in the 89th minute (2-1) and then against Inter in the 80th (1-0), the Londoners were quickly back in the race. On Dec. 11, they traveled to Barcelona while Inter hosted PSV. To qualify, they needed to match or better the Italians' result. Everyone assumed Luciano Spalletti and his players would beat the Dutch, so in his prematch speech, Pochettino talked only about winning. He set up a game plan with which Spurs would play and take the game to the Catalans. Bullishly.
"We produced a great performance. Ousmane Dembele scored an amazing goal for Barcelona on the counterattack, but no one was used to see Barca losing the control of the ball the way they did against us, even if they had rested some of their players," Lloris said. "However, when you start to miss one chance, two chances, when their keeper makes some amazing saves, you start to think that this is not your night."
With the clock ticking, Spurs were heading out. The bench was updating the players on the score in Milan. It was 1-1 there while Tottenham were still 1-0 down at the Camp Nou. Pochettino brought Erik Lamela, Lucas Moura and Fernando Llorente on after the hour. His team would finish the game with no right-back, one defensive midfielder (Moussa Sissoko) and six attacking players -- Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, Harry Kane, Lucas, Lamela and Llorente -- but Pochettino's determination paid off, with Lucas scoring in the 85th minute to make it 1-1 and send Spurs through.
"It was the first main moment of the Champions League campaign for us. I still remember how we celebrated with the fans. They were quite high in the stands, but they made so much noise when the Inter Milan game finished that we understood straight away that we were through," Lloris remembers.
It would serve as the first miracle of Tottenham's 2018-2019 season, though they wouldn't have to wait long for the second. After working hard to knock out Borussia Dortmund in the last 16, they faced an all-English clash with Manchester City in the quarterfinals. The first leg was won thanks to Son Heung-Min (1-0), but the second would be a different story.
"I don't think I have ever seen my team suffer as much as we suffered in the second half at the Etihad. We could not make two or three passes in a row. We could not breathe. But we stayed strong and tried to stay together. When they scored the fourth goal, at that moment of the game, they were [through to the semifinals]. That's when they lost a little bit of their concentration and their focus because they made such an effort to come back in the game. We used that moment to turn the game our way, with the importance of set pieces."
This time Llorente was the hero, scoring a goal from a corner that Man City would have been furious to concede.
At 4-3 to City, Tottenham were now through on away goals. Then Raheem Sterling scored deep into injury time. "It was the end of the world for 10 or 15 seconds. We were all down on the floor," the captain recalls. "Then the referee saved us by disallowing the goal. I could not believe it."
Did he have a feeling that it could get overturned?
"We were all heartbroken, but the referee told us that he was checking the goal and that they was probably [in] an offside position. I remember seeing that Bernardo Silva was not celebrating the goal because he thought there was offside. It was like a clue. It was funny because we celebrated the disallowed goal like a goal we had just scored. I remember the bench, the fans, all my teammates."
Lloris celebrated with Son, who scored twice while replacing the injured Kane up front. There too was Llorente, the unlikely hero -- "the lucky charm," as some call him in the squad. There was Sissoko, who suffered an injury and had to come off after 41 minutes.
As they walked toward the dressing room together, Sissoko told Lloris what had just happened to him. The midfielder thought that the Sterling goal was valid. He was on his own in the dressing room, totally devastated, thinking City were 5-3 up until a member of the technical staff came in and shouted "We did it Moussa! We did it!"
"What did we do?" the France midfielder replied in disbelief. "The goal was disallowed! We are qualified!" Sissoko grabbed a pair of shorts, a T-shirt and some flip-flops and ran back onto the pitch to celebrate with the team and the fans, limping but happier than ever even if he had missed all the drama. "It still makes me laugh when I think about it today," Lloris said.
After another miracle and emotional rollercoaster, Tottenham were in the Champions League semifinal against Ajax.
"There was plenty of belief after the first leg at home, even if we were disappointed by our performances [Spurs lost 1-0 at Wembley]. Pochettino was not happy and made sure that his players knew it." Lloris himself was raging. He didn't even talk to the media afterward, which is really rare for him. With only eight days before the second leg, they assessed the mistakes made in the first leg as a group and prepared themselves to bounce back in Amsterdam. Their faith in their own ability was stronger than ever. They really believed they could turn the tie around in Holland.
"The first half at Ajax was not so bad, but they were more efficient than us," Lloris said. "They score two goals and then we had our backs to the wall. Once again, we had to stay positive."
The key moment of this Champions League campaign probably happened at half-time of the second leg. Tottenham were virtually out: they had to score three times, after shooting only twice on target in the first half, and not concede again. It looked like mission impossible, but Lloris took centre stage. "We score one quickly and the doubt can start to get to their heads," the captain told his teammates.
Lloris doesn't talk much but when he does, it has an impact.
"The worst feeling in football when you are on the pitch is when you play and you can lose everything. It happened to them. We got the right feeling at the right moment and we all increased our level and then Lucas was the hero," he recalls.
With the last kick of the game, the Brazilian scored his third goal of the evening and the third one with his left foot. The celebrations would be wild. Not a day has gone by since that someone doesn't mention that night to Lucas.
Don't they say that things always come in threes? Spurs have had three miracles this season as they prepare for the final of the greatest club competition in the world for the first time. There is a sense of destiny in this European campaign for Tottenham, and great successes are very often built by going through adversity.
This Tottenham team has had plenty of the latter and every time, they came out stronger and advanced. Can they do it one more time on Saturday in Madrid against Liverpool?