As the knockout phase of this season’s Champions League slowly heats up, group B runners-up Tottenham Hotspur welcomed group A winners Borussia Dortmund to the Wembley Stadium in London for the first part of their two-legged clash in the round of 16.
This game caught both teams in the middle of an injury crisis, with very important players missing from both squads.
Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino was still without his star striker Harry Kane as well as midfielder Dele Alli and defender Ben Davies. Left-back Danny Rose was also a doubt having picked up a knock on the shin in their 3-1 Premier League win over Leicester City on Sunday, and with Davies already out, it was a significant problem to overcome for the Argentinian coach. Centre-back Toby Alderweireld, winger Erik Lamela and forward Son Heung-min were running the risk of being suspended for the second leg should they pick up a yellow card.
Without a designated left-back, Pochettino opted for an interesting and very flexible 3-5-2 shape. Hugo Lloris was in goal, with the trio of Alderweireld, Juan Foyth and Davinson Sanchez ahead of him. Jan Vertonghen played a rare game out wide as the left wing-back, with Serge Aurier on the other side. Between them, the double pivot of Moussa Sissoko and Harry Winks sat behind Christian Eriksen in the number 10 role, while the pace of Lucas Moura and Son Heung-min got the nod upfront.
Lucien Favre in the away dugout was without the services of the sensational Paco Alcacer with the striker out due to a shoulder problem, defenders Manuel Akanji (hip) and Lukasz Piszczek (foot), winger Marco Reus with a thigh injury and midfielder Julian Weigl who was ill. Only Weigl was supposed to face suspension if he picked up a booking, but as he was already out of the game, it bore no significance for this particular tie.
The visitors played in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Roman Burki was between the posts. Dan-Axel Zagadou and Omer Toprak were the two centre-backs, with Abdou Diallo on the left and Achraf Hakimi on the right. Thomas Delaney and Axel Witsel sat deep in midfield, behind the trio of Christian Pulisic, Mahmoud Dahoud and Jadon Sancho. Mario Gotze spearheaded the attack.
The First Half
Both teams started the game pressing high and trying to get forward, but it was Spurs who looked slightly more dangerous. In the seventh minute, Moura suddenly got a chance to shoot from 15 yards, but his volley just missed the far post.
Also, both teams played with a certain degree of positional flexibility. Sancho and Pulisic occasionally swapped sides out wide for Dortmund, while Moura and Son dropped slightly from time to time to drag a defender out and open space for Eriksen to run into, expecting a long pass.
Aurier picked up a yellow card early, after only 12 minutes, for stopping a counterattack by bringing Pulisic down from behind.
As the game progressed, Dortmund grew into it more and in the 15th minute, Gotze and Pulisic robbed young Foyth of the ball on the edge of the box, Pulisic picked it up and managed to shoot past Alderweireld, but Lloris had closed the angle down well and made an easy save.
Four minutes later, Sissoko brought down Hakimi wide on the right after a good combination between the fullback and Sancho. Spurs defended the free-kick well and eventually Witsel hit a long-range shot, forcing Lloris into another save. Then Sancho made mince-meat of Sanchez and tried to square the ball for the incoming Gotze, but Foyth reacted well. After another minute a lovely combination involving four or five Dortmund players had Spurs flying all over the place, but the hosts somehow managed to defend the situation. It wasn’t looking good for Spurs at that point.
It took the hosts a while to get organized again, but after half and hour had gone, their moves became more intricate and harder for the visitors to deal with. Minute 34 was passing when Foyth made a run from the back, played a nice one-two with Aurier and found Eriksen in the box, but the Dane blasted it high over the bar. Dortmund had a brief respite straight away as Delaney made Lloris work again, before Son’s trickery wide on the left gave the German side a lot of trouble and it was Burki’s turn to help his team.
There was a moment of slight controversy in the 38th minute as Sancho broke on the counterattack and was quite obviously clipped from behind on the edge of the box by Sissoko, but referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz inexplicably missed it.
In the last minute of the half, Dortmund took a corner short and then Sancho crossed towards the far post, where Zagadou beat Foyth in the air and forced Lloris into another good save.
The Second Half
Dortmund were the better team in the first half, but it took Spurs around 60 seconds after the break to take the lead. Vertonghen applied some good pressure upfront and won the ball. He combined with Eriksen and Moura, and having gotten the ball back he swung in a great cross between the two centre-backs, and Son was there to capitalize with a well-controlled volley under the bar.
The home team were now very comfortable. The balance of the game changed completely with a goal on the scoreboard. After 53 minutes, Vertonghen combined with Eriksen and found Son just outside the box, and Delaney simply had to take the Korean out and earn a booking. Eriksen took the free-kick and hit the wall.
Vertonghen was playing an incredible game in an unfamiliar position. Five minutes later, he stole the ball, charged past several opponents and took a shot from 20 yards, but it ended high in the stands. On the hour mark, his free-kick from inside his own half sent Eriksen running in behind the defence and straight towards Burki and the Dane tried to find Son coming in from the other side, but the backtracking Zagadou intercepted the pass.
Dortmund then responded and Pulisic broke into the box, ran past a few obstacles before getting caught and dispossessed by Sanchez. However, the likes of Dahoud and Gotze were still very quiet, and Sancho disappeared too. Only Pulisic was trying to cause some damage upfront, but he was always crowded out and stopped without major difficulties.
They tried to take advantage of Spurs’ high defensive line a few times with long passes in behind, but the runners mostly misunderstood the intention and failed to make runs. It took Pulisic’s teammates until the 69th minute to pick some of his vibe up and engage a bit more, and then an intricate move ended with Dahoud taking a low shot from 20 yards – straight at Lloris.
Another period of Spurs’ domination followed, but a couple of half-chances was all they could conjure.
With 14 minutes to go, Favre made the first substitution of the game. He replaced the tired-looking Zagadou with Marcel Schmelzer.
As the game approached its conclusion, most of it came down to Spurs winning the midfield battle with pure physicality. Sancho and Dahoud tried to take the ball forward by employing some silky skill, but they were being overpowered by the strength and persistence of Sissoko and Winks.
As for Vertonghen, his great evening became perfect in the 83rd minute. Spurs were circling Dortmund’s box and the ball came to Aurier on the right flank. The former Paris Saint-Germain man whipped in a cross towards the far post, and the Belgian beat Hakimi to the ball and slammed it in from six yards.
Dortmund completely fell apart at the seams at that point, and having replaced Moura five minutes before the end, Fernando Llorente headed an Eriksen corner into the net less than 60 seconds later.
Late on, Favre replaced Pulisic and Sancho and sent on Jacob Bruun Larsen and Raphael Guerreiro, and Pochettino responded by fielding Erik Lamela and Victor Wanyama instead of Son and Sissoko.
But apart from a long-range effort from Guerreiro that went very close to the post, there were no more excitements.
It’s fair to say Dortmund did not deserve to leave Wembley three goals down, at least not when the first half is taken into consideration, but Spurs looked a different team after the break. There wasn’t much change in the tactical approach; it just seemed that Pochettino’s ideas were brought onto the pitch with more focus and much more determination, while the visitors kept dropping off by the minute.
The tie is not over, that much is clear. Dortmund can be a very tricky team and they’ve shown glimpses of that at Wembley, and the support from the fans at the Signal Iduna Park in three weeks will certainly act as a wind into their sails. However, there’s no denying that the hill they have to climb is now very steep, merely due to a lack of focus at the very end.
TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR: Lloris 8, Alderweireld 7, Foyth 7, Sanchez 7.5, Sissoko 8, Winks 7.5, Vertonghen 9, Aurier 7, Eriksen 8, Son 7, Moura 7.5.
BORUSSIA DORTMUND: Burki 7, Zagadou 7 (76′ Schmelzer 7), Toprak 7, Hakimi 7.5, Diallo 7, Delaney 7.5, Witsel 7, Dahoud 5, Sancho 7 (88′ Guerreiro N/A), Pulisic 7.5 (87′ Larsen N/A), Gotze 6.
GOALS: Son 47′, Vertonghen 83′, Llorente 86′.
YELLOW CARDS: Aurier 12′, Delaney 53′.
REFEREE: Antonio Mateu Lahoz (Spain).
DATE & VENUE: February 13, 2019, Wembley Stadium, London, England.
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