Champions League: Ruthless Tottenham rattle Borussia Dortmund as Mauricio Pochettino delivers statement of intent

Mauricio Pochettino often talks about ‘the final step,’ but so far that final step – whatever the precise semantic meaning in Pochettino’s lexicon – has failed to materialise for Tottenham. At times, the world seems shaped to deny the Londoners: Pochettino has done about everything right during his reign in North London, yet his idiosyncratic management hasn’t yielded any trophies.

Tottenham's Son Heung-min celebrates scoring their first goal with Serge Aurier and teammates. Reuters

Tottenham's Son Heung-min celebrates scoring their first goal with Serge Aurier and teammates. Reuters

In the Premier League, Tottenham are still in the thick of the action, but winning the league still seems the preserve of defending champions Manchester City or a Jurgen-Klopp-led Liverpool. The Champions League offers a shorter route to glory, but the continental elite carry baggage and budgets that outstrip Tottenham’s history and resources.

On Wednesday, Dortmund traveled to Wembley as Germany’s best team. They were not some hipster club from North Rhine-Westphalia, but Bundesliga leaders, the country’s second most successful club and a team that draws 75,000-plus fans to every home game. The Germans posed a veritable test for Tottenham and the result over two legs would be an indication of the English club’s improvement or regression since last season’s second-round elimination from the European Cup by Juventus.

The game always held the promise of a great thrill, but the first stanza was a slow burner with compactness and intensity, pressing and running, but caution from both the hosts and the visitors. Pochettino picked a defensive line-up. His team chose to close down the spaces and press the ball in patches, leaving them susceptible to balls over the top from Dortmund. They had little direction moving forward and for all their energy, Tottenham showed little incisiveness in the final third in half that was ultimately dotted with Dortmund chances.

It was the team with least possession who controlled the game. Lucien Favre’s eleven were mature and picked their moments, lurking on the counter as Thomas Delaney and Axel Witsel shielded their rearguard. Jadon Sancho proved a scourge on the right with Christian Pulisic restricted to more functional runs on the left. On the brink of half-time, the former was prevented from scoring with a close-range header by Hugo Lloris.

But it was perhaps inevitable that Son, a peripheral first-half figure, like Mario Gotze, would score. The high press was instrumental in forcing Tottenham’s 47th-minute opener. Achraf Hakimi ceded possession and Belgian wing-half Jan Vertonghen’s pinpoint cross was met by Son, who had peeled away from Dortmund’s central defender Dan-Axel Zagadou. The South Korean’s side-footed finished underlined his importance to Tottenham set-up.

Son’s recent stats have been superlative. He has been directly involved in sixteen goals in his last twelve games in all competitions, according to Opta. His goalscoring prowess has suppressed any full-on panic in Tottenham ranks in the absence of talismanic striker Harry Kane. Son has become a reassuring focal point for Tottenham, a modern center forward whose speed, versatility and mobility have replaced Kane’s classic number nine play. His movement away from Zagadou perfected illustrated his all-round quality as he scored his ninth goal in ten matches against Dortmund, more than against any other team.

The strike altered the complexion of the game. Dortmund were rattled, struggled for possession and any horizontal play. Their forwards became isolated as Dortmund missed any link-up play and searched for direction. Sancho faded and Gotze remained peripheral. At the back, they left far too much space in behind the full-backs.

The game jolted into life and in the 83rd minute when the game’s outstanding player Vertonghen, exploited the space left by Hakimi – already at fault for Tottenham’s first goal – to double his team’s lead following a perfect cross from Davinson Sanchez. Tottenham accelerated in an excellent second-half showing with Llorente heading in a tie-deciding goal three minutes later.

Wembley’s roof was spinning as delirious fans saluted a Pochettino masterclass. His slight tweaks in the second half – moving Son out slightly to the left and shifting Harry Winks in the same direction to cover for the marauding Vertonghen – outwitted Lucien Favre. Dortmund were simply overrun and outclassed and as they had no response to Tottenham’s panache and pedigree.

The 3-0 win is not yet the final step that Pochettino so envisages, but Tottenham, twice quarter-finalists in the European Cup before, have once more delivered a statement of intent.

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Updated Date: Feb 14, 2019 10:52:53 IST

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