Harry Kane got his math right in Tottenham’s 3-1 victory over Dortmund in their first UEFA Champions League group stage match Wednesday night. England’s newly-minted captain put in one of his finest European performances in a Spurs shirt to lead his side to a surprise rout of an injury-hit, yet very solid Dortmund side. That the result came at the seemingly cursed Wembley of all places only underlined how impressive it truly was.
Kane takes charge, Spurs take off
Much of the buildup to Wednesday’s match centered on whether Harry Kane was ready to take his remarkably consistent and deadly domestic form into Europe’s elite competition. As good as Kane has been in England over the last few seasons, strikers tend not to be labelled “world class” until they’ve produced in the Champions League; a tournament widely regarded as the benchmark for top-level football worldwide. Given that Spurs’ UCL adventure last season was a complete train wreck, it was no surprise that both Kane and Pochettino faced plenty of questions in their pre-game presser centered on whether Spurs were good enough to make a run this season.
Once the match kicked off, however, Kane immediately set to work dismantling any notions that he wasn’t ready to produce on world football’s most prominent stage. With just 4 minutes played, he released Son Heung-min down the flank with a brilliant through ball that led to the South Korean’s sweetly-struck opener. Dortmund pegged Spurs back with a superb Yarmolenko strike minutes later, but this simply provided Kane another opportunity to make a difference. He did so in the 15th minute, brushing off challenges from two Dortmund players on a 50-yard run and finishing with a vicious weak-footed near-post strike not too dissimilar to Son’s opener.
Finally, as Dortmund were fighting their way back into the game in the second half, Kane struck again to make sure of the 3 points. Found at the top of the box by Eriksen, he again called on his left foot to guide a low finish past Burki and into the far corner. While he was fortunate to get a bit of a deflection on this hit, it’s hard to imagine he’d have failed to convert even if the defender never got a touch. The lad was simply on his game last night, and his brace got Spurs off to a dream start.
Wembley hoodoo (and Dortmund difficulties) dispelled
Wembley, Wembley, Wembley. England’s national stadium hasn’t been too kind to Spurs down the years, and was again a talking point in the lead-up to Wednesday’s action. How would Spurs beat Dortmund here when they failed to defeat lowly Burnley at home just a few weeks ago? Of all the opponents to break the Wembley “curse” against, the Germans certainly didn’t seem very likely: the last time these two had met in Europe (albeit, the Europa League), Dortmund ran out 5-1 aggregate winners over the two legs.
In many ways, though, this match was perfectly set-up for Spurs to put aside their Wembley problems. Dortmund, while still fielding a dangerous side, were positively ravaged by injury. Key players like club-captain Marcel Schmelzer, dynamic winger Marco Reus, and midfield controller Julian Weigl were all missing Wednesday night, which definitely contributed to Dortmund’s struggles. Still, with guys like Pulisic and Aubamayang on the pitch, the visitors always looked threatening going forward. Truth is, Spurs rode their luck quite a bit throughout the match in order to stay ahead, and even benefited from some very questionable referee decisions. But defensively, Dortmund just couldn’t handle the counter and conceded too many clear-cut opportunities to one of Europe’s most dangerous strikers.
Pochettino’s gameplan pays off
Pochettino took a risk with a 3-at-the-back system Wednesday night, but boy did it work a treat. Organized to soak up Dortmund pressure, Spurs countered ruthlessly in the opening 20 minutes or so and were able to punish the visitors twice with lethal close-range finishes. Spurs defense was notable not so much due to how impenetrable it was, but rather the inspired individual performances that were on display. Serge Aurier looked a revelation at right back; his audacious defensive dummy on Pulisic was the talk of the internet after the game. Young defender Davinson Sanchez looked like he’s been playing with Toby and Jan for years at the heart of defense. Speaking of the Belgian duo, I lost count of how many times one of them made a key interception to take the ball off the foot of Aubamayang or Pulisic inside the six yard box. On that score, even Ben Davies got in on the defensive action when he took a great Nuri Sahin cross right off Yarmolenko’s head.
So while it wasn’t always pretty, and Dortmund created a number of good chances that might have won the game, Spurs’ defense held together well enough. Poch gave Dortmund the respect a team of their stature demands with his team selection, but also set Spurs up to succeed on the counter against the visitors’ depleted back line.
The path towards the knockout rounds is clearer
Most pundits didn’t really give Spurs a chance at getting out of Group H prior to the beginning of group stage play, but the road to qualification for the knockout rounds became a little less complicated after Wednesday night’s results. Real predictably defeated Apoel, rooting them to the bottom of the Group H table. Spurs have Apoel next, and as long as they can take care of business on the road, will sit on 6 points from a possible 6 after 2 games. Dortmund, meanwhile, have Madrid next and could find themselves right down with Apoel at 2 losses from 2 matches.
This would put Spurs in a pretty good position to qualify; as long as they beat Apoel a second time and avoid defeat to Dortmund in that rematch, they would very likely go through. Madrid are going to top the group; even I am not optimistic enough to predict a Spurs win over them in either fixture. So the group is going to come down to which team out of Spurs and Dortmund drops the least amount of points in their remaining fixtures. A lot of people didn’t expect Spurs to be 3 points and +2 goals clear of Dortmund at this early stage, so at the very least Poch’s men have laid the foundation for a solid group campaign this season.
As mentioned above, Spurs’ next Champions League fixture is Tuesday, September 26th at Apoel. They will resume Premier League action this weekend at home against Swansea on Saturday.