Dele Alli: The unsung hero of Tottenham's Champions League miracle

  • Lucas Moura scored hat-trick when Tottenham beat Ajax 3-2 in Champions League semi-final in 2019
  • Dele Alli's contribution often overlooked following career decline
  • Selfless attitude helped Spurs into first Champions League final
Dele shone in Amsterdam but it's often forgotten
Dele shone in Amsterdam but it's often forgotten / VI Images via Getty Images, Briony Painter/90min

When you think of Dele Alli at the peak of his powers at Tottenham Hotspur, your mind probably wanders to his incredible goal against Crystal Palace.

Just smile and wave, boys / GLYN KIRK/GettyImages

Or his double to break Chelsea’s 13-match winning streak.

Dele Alli
Two goals of a kind / Mike Hewitt/GettyImages

Or his Champions League brace against Real Madrid.

Dele Alli
Lighting up Wembley / Catherine Ivill - AMA/GettyImages

Or cupping his ear to the Shed End all the while he was ending Tottenham’s barren run at Stamford Bridge.

Dele Alli
Rattled / Chris Brunskill Ltd/GettyImages

Or scoring in England’s 2018 World Cup campaign which brought the nation’s enthusiasm for the national team back.

Dele Alli, Ashley Young
Sending England to the semi-finals / Clive Rose/GettyImages

You probably don't think of his final truly great game - Spurs' 3-2 comeback win at Ajax in the semi-finals of the 2018/19 UEFA Champions League.

UEFA Champions League"Ajax v Tottenham Hotspur FC"
A complete performance in Amsterdam / VI-Images/GettyImages

Now, the reasons for that are obvious. If you had to pick only one winner from that match, it would be hat-trick hero Lucas Moura. Dele's own such revered exploits have come when he was the one on the scoresheet. His best moments were usually just those - moments.

The difference in his difference-making in Amsterdam was that it came over the course of the whole 90 minutes. Dele's fingerprints were all over the greatest night in Tottenham's modern history despite never taking on his favourite role in the centre of the stage.

As Spurs went one and two-down at the Johan Cruyff Arena and their Champions League campaign was going up in flames, Dele was one of the only responders before Spurs managed to regroup at the half-time break.

Ajax led 2-0 on the night, 3-0 on aggregate. Mauricio Pochettino hauled off Victor Wanyama for Fernando Llorente, the gigantic Spaniard going up top as Tottenham went from a narrow 4-4-2 to their more traditional 4-2-3-1. Into the hole went Dele, with Christian Eriksen pulling the strings from deep.

It was this combination to first wrangle the Ajax nerves, a traditional Eriksen cross from the half-space finding Dele round the back and forcing Andre Onana into his first fine save of the evening. If they were eventually eliminated, that moment would have been seen as Spurs' sliding-doors nightmare.

The criticisms of Dele in more recent years have been due to his early decline and inability to maintain or clear the extremely high bar he managed to set. When the stats dried up, there was a casual and disingenuous wondering as to whether he actually fulfilled a purpose, whether he was actually additive to winning.

But his selfless, team-first attitude not only kept Tottenham in the fight, but propelled them up and off the canvas. He led the press despite his various injury setbacks throughout that season. He led the fight for the shirt and sought to stir the pot when Ajax were imploding, the cheeky antagonist in the Amsterdam night.

Dele carried the ball a good 20 yards leading to Spurs' first goal of the game, with Lucas pinching it back off his toes before Ajax's Lasse Schone could do so. That same tandem sent Tottenham through to the final with 96 minutes on the clock.

With seconds remaining, Llorente's touch on allowed Spurs one final attack - Dele's innate flick, Lucas' finish.

Just as Lucas didn't need to look towards goal for his second strike of the evening, Dele didn't need to look up to find his Brazilian teammate. He had been trying to find him all night, all season. That same run, out to in. Over and over.

Lucas Moura, Dele Alli
Lucas grabbed the headlines but Dele deserved more credit / Dan Mullan/GettyImages

Dele's intelligence gets buried in the history of his career and life. "His personally is like a kid and he is intelligent and clever. On the football side, he is intelligent, too," Pochettino once said, having also described his star midfielder as 'naughty'.

His playground style has also been misinterpreted. After the first leg, legendary midfielder Ruud Gullit slammed Dele and his teammates, proclaiming: "Dele Alli, oh my god, technical wise so bad. Wanyama, my god, technical wise, Rose too."

Fresh from eliminating Ajax in such fashion, the fiery Rose later retorted: "He was very critical of individual players and saying how bad we were technically and he's bang out of order for that, so that was fuel to the fire. I hope he eats his words after tonight."

Dele was and is misunderstood as a player. That's fine, not everyone will get him, that's part of football. But it should be remembered more how he helped drag Tottenham to a Champions League final - an utterly insane achievement that few in history could match.