Tottenham showed steel to see off Dortmund and secure the 1-0 away win that gave them a 4-0 aggregate victory over the Bundesliga leaders. Mauricio Pochettino’s team is growing not stagnating, writes Adam Bate.
The recent 4-0 win over Atletico Madrid was fresh in the mind and the Yellow Wall was throbbing with anticipation. Dortmund even released their team sheet in the style of Harry Potter in the hope of producing some Champions League magic. They threw everything at Tottenham, but none of it was enough. Somehow Spurs held firm throughout it all.
Jan Vertonghen was there to tackle Marco Reus. Davinson Sanchez stretched out a leg to block a cross. Christian Eriksen got in the way of one shot by Mario Gotze, Moussa Sissoko forced away another. Ben Davies did brilliantly to deny Julian Weigl. And when Dortmund did get through everyone else, Hugo Lloris was behind them to pull off save after save.
All of that came in a crazy assault on the Tottenham goal in the first half. But when the chance finally came at the other end, they took it. Harry Kane had been starved of service before the interval but he was there to take advantage of a lapse in Dortmund’s defensive line, finishing unerringly. Suddenly the home side needed five. They couldn’t get a single one.
This was Dortmund’s big night but Tottenham’s tie and it was Mauricio Pochettino and his players smiling at the end. The celebrations at the final whistle were nothing out of the ordinary but make no mistake – this is no ordinary achievement for Spurs. They are into the quarter-finals of the European Cup for only the third time in their history.
Spurs last reached the last eight in 2011, where they were beaten 5-0 over two legs by Real Madrid, and last passed that stage back in 1962 when their adventure ended in the semi-finals. It is worth mentioning the history because Pochettino is making it. Quietly and amid ongoing questions and criticism, he and his players are elevating expectations at this club.
Of course, eliminating the Bundesliga leaders will not put an end to the chatter. Another round of a cup negotiated will not silence those who seek to weaponise the absence of a trophy. They will point to a defeat here and a drawn game there. They will talk of bottling a title race that Tottenham never led and in which they were outgunned from the outset.
But it really does not require any great perspective or wisdom to notice that Pochettino’s accomplishments are significant and, just as pertinently, ongoing. It is not merely about the circumstances in which the club found itself when he arrived back in the summer 2014, but the more immediate challenges that he continues to overcome in the here and now.
The first leg was where this tie was won thanks to the three second-half goals that took the game away from Dortmund. But that was done without the help of Kane, unavailable through injury, and the talismanic Dele Alli. At least Heung-Min Son was around but even he has had to fit in two international tournaments with his country already this season.
The squad has coped but it has not grown. The popular Mousa Dembele departed for China in January but nobody arrived, just as they didn’t in the summer window when Spurs became the first Premier League team since its introduction not to sign a player ahead of a new season. Harry Winks has progressed and fellow academy graduate Oliver Skipp has stepped up.
It is a familiar tale for Tottenham fans, one barely worth mentioning except when new heights are hit. But this is a new height, a new level. Twelve months ago, Pochettino spoke of it being “a massive lesson” when they were knocked out at this stage by a Juventus team that Spurs more than matched for endeavour but couldn’t do so when it came to nous.
This time it was they who looked the experienced outfit holding off enthusiastic hopefuls. It was they who kept their heads in that first half as Dortmund poured players forwards in search of a goal. They rode the storm and by the end of it they had grown. The Champions League now feels like the natural home for a club that is still doing all this without one.
Arsenal and Chelsea, meanwhile, will be showcasing their skills on Thursday evening against Rennes and Dynamo Kiev respectively. Tottenham’s rivals from the capital might even pick up some silverware, which would be a difficult one for Spurs supporters to deal with given that it would present their opponents with yet another stick with which to beat them.
But long before that, the reminder of the current shape of things will come when the Champions League draw takes place a week on Friday. Most of Europe’s big beasts will be dreaming of lifting old big ears on the first of June and the only London club among them will be Tottenham. Pochettino and his players have helped to make that happen.
There is no imminent sign of it changing either. Spurs might be adrift of the top two in the Premier League but they have managed to sustain this Champions League challenge while looking down on Arsenal and Chelsea in the table. If this is what stagnation looks like then it should be welcomed. Continuously high standards would be a better description.
There is no silverware to reward that yet but nights like this in front of 66,000 fans in the knockout stages of Europe’s elite competition only serve to highlight how much the landscape has been altered by Pochettino’s Tottenham. They are not just into the last eight but they are plausible winners now. That really shouldn’t lose its shine any time soon.
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