Without Harry Kane and Dele Alli, Tottenham blew away Borussia Dortmund with a dominant second half, while Real Madrid was able to escape Ajax with a narrow victory that was aided by technology in the Champions League.
Tottenham took a huge step toward the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League, producing an emphatic second-half performance to beat Borussia Dortmund 3-0 in the first leg of their last-16 tie at Wembley Stadium on Wednesday.
Spurs had looked anxious in the first half, but second-half goals from Son Heung-min, Jan Vertonghen and Fernando Llorente secured a famous win that puts Tottenham in prime position to reach the final eight.
In the day's other game, Real Madrid rode a bit of luck to take control of its tie, winning 2-1 at Ajax. Marco Asensio's late goal was the difference in Amsterdam, where Video Assistant Referee was called into action for the first time in Champions League history.
Here are three thoughts on the day in the Champions League:
Son, Vertonghen step up to inspire Spurs
In the absence of Harry Kane and Dele Alli, and with Llorente looking sadly superannuated, it was essential that Son step up if Tottenham’s season was not to slide into terminal decline. Spurs were fortunate, perhaps, that South Korea’s Asian Cup campaign was so curtailed, but Son has been exceptional this year, scoring 11 goals in his last 12 games. It was, predictably enough, Son’s goal a minute into the second half that gave Tottenham the lead. Less predictably, Vertonghen, having already set up the first, scored the second.
Vertonghen, usually a central defender, was only playing at left wingback because of the absence of Danny Rose and Ben Davies. There are times when his lack of pace, particularly on the turn, is a concern in that area, but he is a remarkably adept crosser of the ball for somebody who has very little cause to practice the art. His ball into the box for the opener could not have been better, bending into the path of Son as he dropped behind Dan-Axel Zagadou and allowing the South Korean to slam a side-footed volley into the top corner.
Vertonghen had been presented with the ball by Lucas Moura, who had received it after Christian Eriksen had won the ball high up the pitch, an indication of the higher press employed by Tottenham after the break. It was a tactic that shifted the balance of play significantly in its favor.
Vertonghen had an extraordinary second half overall, imposing himself to the extent that he not only negated the threat of Jadon Sancho but also became a persistent attacking threat, He was rewarded with his first Champions League goal, volleying in from Serge Aurier’s cross seven minutes from time.
Llorente, off the bench for a matter of seconds, added a third, glancing in Eriksen’s corner with five minutes to go–the first time he had ever scored as a substitute for Tottenham in the 34th attempt.
Dortmund wilts after halftime
Tottenham was magnificent in the second half, but Dortmund will wonder what might have been had it not been depleted by injuries and weakened by a flu virus. This, after all, is a side that let in three in the final 15 minutes in drawing against Hoffenheim on Saturday–and in the first half, Dortmund could legitimately claim to have had the better chances.
Sancho was by far the most threatening Dortmund player, his pace and trickery causing panic every time he ran at a defender. Most of the opportunities Dortmund created, though, were gifted to them by Tottenham, who retain an alarming propensity in big games for giving the ball away cheaply in dangerous areas.
There is a widespread belief that Hugo Lloris is not quite the goalkeeper he once was, but he made an exceptional save just before halftime, hurling himself to his right to claw away Zagadou’s header. But for a tiny deflection off Juan Foyth that took a little of the pace off the ball, he surely would not have gotten there. He did, though, preserving parity and preparing the ground for the second-half surge.
Real Madrid benefits from UCL's first VAR controversy
As a game, this was essentially a microcosm of Real Madrid’s season. For much of the first half it was outplayed, struggling to get going in the face of an excellent Ajax performance, but it picked up in the second half and, just about, did enough to win the game.
Most of the post-match discussion, though, will focus on the incident six minutes before the break in which VAR, for the first time in a Champions League game, ruled out a goal. Ajax seemed to have taken the lead, as Nicolas Tagliafico took advantage of a flap by Thibaut Courtois to nod into an empty net, only for the goal to be ruled out after a video review because Dusan Tadic was fractionally offside and standing just in front of Courtois, so close to him that there was contact between them, as the Argentinian headed in.
VAR in the UCL: in the 38th minute of the Ajax v Madrid first leg, Nicolás Tagliafico’s headed goal was ruled out following a VAR review. The referee identified that Tagliafico’s team-mate Dušan Tadić was in an offside position and interfering with the goalkeeper - pic.twitter.com/sPtZFd6YiB— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) February 13, 2019
With Ajax having failed to score when in control, there was a sense of inevitability about Madrid’s eventual victory. It took the lead on the hour mark, with Vinicius Junior, who has been exceptional over the past few weeks in La Liga, cutting the ball back for Karim Benzema to score.
Ajax, to its credit, kept fighting and levelled with quarter of an hour remaining, with Hakim Ziyech side-footing home from a left-wing cross by David Neres. But with three minutes to go, Marco Asensio touched in a Dani Carvajal ball at the back post to pinch the victory and give Real Madrid two away goals and the aggergate edge heading back to the Bernabeu.