If I had more words to jam into the title, contextually it was a remarkable team effort – despite all the injuries + 2 transfer windows with not reinforcements – somehow the plucky Spurs of Tottenham put to the sword one of the richest teams on the planet in a shocking and dramatic quarter final Champions League – probably the most entertaining and craziest game the world has witnessed (we’ll get to that 2nd leg in a moment). So yes, it’s not just about Son Heung-min…AND YET it really is about Son’s magical moment in the spotlight – his clutch goals over 2 legs did his part to sink the Manchester City machine. To say his contribution was massive would be an understatement. It’s been 72 hours since the game ended and I’m still in recovery mode for a suspected proverbial heart attack.
In case you’ve been in a cave for 2 weeks – let’s catch up quickly: Son’s goal last week against City for leg 1 at the sparkling new White Hart Lane was the only goal of the match, ergo advantage Spurs. Denying City a precious away goal with adroit defending was crucial. A confident offense saw their chances rewarded in one inelegant moment which perfectly encapsulated Son’s career in a nutshell. A bad touch by Son after a brilliant switch pass by Ericksen nearly derailed what looked like a golden chance to shoot on target, yet Son didn’t give up. He chased down and collected the ball before it could go out of bounds. For City’s backline, that tenacity presaged Son’s second phase of deconstructing the goal. Turning to face goalside once again, Son adventured further with some confident footwork that opened up ever so slightly the tight knit space on the left of City’s defense. Before any of the City players knew what happened, Son launched a quick footed shot that surprised everyone including Ederson. He could not recover on his right quick enough to stop Son’s shot from bouncing into the net. The relief, the elation amounted to the staggering fact that Son’s goal would add up to more history making: not only did Son score the new stadium’s first Premier League goal days earlier against Palace, he would also score the first Champions League goal there. Son literally wrote his way onto Tottenham’s history books with 2 exclamation points.
Onto the much anticipated 2nd leg, Spurs losing the two Harrys in Kane and Winks meant the injury depleted squad had to rely once more on a rag tag team barely able to cobble together a healthy enough squad against perhaps the deepest bench in all of Europe. Additionally, the specter of Pep Guardiola’s legacy hung over the preceding. His desire above all else to cement his status as a GOAT manager has been frustrated by a lack of CL championships in recent years (with the exception of some of his world beating Barcelona squads between 2008-2011). It would all come down to the final 90 minute stretch at the Ethiad.
The rest of the game as it unfolded was a dizzying blur. This game may go down as one of the most intriguing, dramatic and engaging CL quarterfinals in history. It was certainly the craziest game anyone has ever witnessed. It had blistering pace. Most of all it was a back and forth spectacle, a wild playground game punctuated by somewhat absent defending at times and heart attack inducing goals, 4 of which came JUST in the first 11 minutes alone!
Sterling broke the game open early but before anyone could start calculating the implications, Spurs quickly answered back. Dele Alli’s penetrating pass into the area was off the mark but Laporte errantly gave it right to Son. He squared a shot that deflected past Ederson’s leg and into the net! A vital away goal was scored but before anyone could catch their breath, a minute later Laporte’s pockets were picked by Lucas Moura. He charged towards goal with teammates close by. When closed down, Moura took evasive action, passing off to Erickson. With 2 options on his left, Alli making a run and Son, who was drifting out wider, Ericksen chose the latter. While Alli did his part diverting the defense, it allowed Son a small slice of space to shoot. He took aim and curled it toward the upper rights. He did not miss. It was a beauty of a goal, and if Spurs were ecstatic only a moment ago, Son and his teammates were suddenly in dreamland, ahead with 2 vital away goals.
Of course the lead it would not last. Almost immediately City rampaged into Spurs territory and before you could say COYS, Bernardo Silva’s shot nutmegged Rose, deflected under him, and on past the incredulous Lloris. From ecstasy to disbelief, the stadium and the TV worldwide audience could not believe either what was happening. And it was only the 11th minute…
By halftime the 2 sides were even 3:3 on aggregate, but with the away goals rule, Spurs held the advantage with the slenderest of margins. That changed when Agüero put City ahead early in the 2nd half.
Now it was Tottenham’s turn to try to find a way through, except that Sissoko, their steady rock in the midfield, pulled out injured right before the half. Left on the outskirts of the squad, Llorente’s emergency appearance meant the Pochetino was nearly out of options. However, a plot twist no one could foresee was brewing.
Throughout the game, City pinned Spurs back with constant withering attacks, but in the 76th minute, Spurs managed to break out of their half. Son made a dazzling diagonal run, forcing Ederson to come off his line to concede a corner. The ensuing corner kick, Ederson came off his line again to parry away danger. The very next corner would wind up haunting City as the delivery found its way to Llorente, bouncing off his hips and on into the net! Everyone would hold their breath for several tense minutes, waiting the VAR review- did the ball come off his elbow or his hip? The referee pored over and over the replay. In the end he shrugged his shoulder and returned to the pitch: goal. It was a pivotal moment, turning the tides once again in this topsy-turbulent game.
Defending for their lives, a chance to appear in the European semifinal for the first time since 1962, Spurs fended off waves of attacks for the next 12 minutes. Forgoing counter attacking opportunities for a pragmatic approach meant simply getting the ball out of their half.
Within sight of the end – in the middle of 6 long stoppage time minutes – catastrophe struck. Snuffing out another City attack, Davidson Sanchez calmly passed the ball to Son, who linked with Wanyama en route to Ericksen – who could be counted on managing a routine matter as getting the ball out of danger. Instead, he inexplicably opted to turn back. In that moment, he sensed danger and decided to backpass to Ben Davies, brought on late to bolster the defense. Bernardo Silva had other plans and deflected the pass – right to Agüero! His split pass through the panic-stricken defense found Sterling, and he nailed the shot that took Spurs out of the CL. Poch threw his jacket in frustration, Sissoko left for the lockers, and earth shattering eruptions of joy by Guardiola burst on the touchlines + the thousands of blue clad supporters thundering in the stadium, enough to shake the TV cameras.
And in the last twist of fate for the hosts, one more plot twist that no one could imagine, the ref indicated the goal was under review for offsides. Before he could go to the monitors, there was simply no debate, the VAR gods on high in their control room delivered a quick and decisive decision that would reverberate for decades: no goal flashed on the video monitors. No goal. From hell and back, the crestfallen Spurs players lifted themselves up, incredulous of the decision that spared them disaster and preserved the slender away goals advantage. After a furious 3 additional minutes (that in truth felt like an eternity) Spurs prevailed – and the joy and sorrow by both contestants could be felt thousands of miles across distant oceans.
What have we all just witnessed? Was it the greatest contest in Champions League history? One thing’s for sure, this would be a game long remembered. This would be something people will never forget, perhaps a reminder: in a sport tarnished by cynicism due to the corruptible influence of far too much money, football at its core is a simply a game. And what a game it was.
Sonny’s game, stats & post game reaction
Son is now on 20 goals across all competitions for Tottenham (nearly equaling his haul for the 2016-2017 season). The breakdown of his goals thus far: 12 Premier League, 3 League Cup, 1 FA Cup, and 4 in the Champions League. Some interesting discussions underway as another interesting stat comes to the fore: as Harry Kane’s been out injured in different spells this season (and not taking anything away from how good Kane is) Son has stepped up, scoring 11 goals in the 11 games in Kane’s absence.
One unfortunate stat: a yellow card picked up Wednesday means Son will be suspended for yellow card accumulations for the 1st leg of the Champions League semis with Ajax (who looked good knocking out Juventus). Leg 1 is set for April 30th. Son will presumably suit up for the 2nd leg at Ajax on May 8th. He’ll likely be in action as Man City and Spurs go at each other once again on Saturday in a Prem showdown.
As to the blitzkrieg of goals, let’s look at the start of the game: 4 – Four goals in the opening 11 minutes of Manchester City vs Tottenham is the fastest four goals have ever been scored in a single Champions League match. Bonkers. #MCITOT— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 17, 2019
According to Goal.com: “Son and Sterling’s early goals meant Wednesday was the first time in Champions League history that two players have scored two goals in the first 21 minutes of the same game.”
Update: Messi ended up wining the award for the week. Son in the same category as Messi? Not too shabby.
This is the Champions League knockout stage and if previously he was considered a valuable but underrated part of the Pochettino project in constant motion – he now joins a very short list of global super super stars, and not just the most recognizable Asian athlete of the moment.
Son wasn’t the only international Korean player to score Wednesday. Hwang In-beom registered his first MLS goal for Vancouver against Western Conference leaders LAFC.
Hwang said in a post match interview that manager Mark Dos Santos encouraged him before the match, encouraged him by telling him: “…You are not Wayne Rooney. You are not Zlatan Ibrahimovic. You are In-beom.” Vancouver gets their first win of the season.
Meanwhile, Ji So-yun and Chelsea Women FC look to Sunday for the Women’s Champions League semifinals when they face Lyon. Chelsea were knocked out of the FA Cup by Man City last week but with a chance to move forward in European competition, look for Ji and company to be all in against Lyon. Ji’s compatriot, West Ham’s Cho So-hyun is getting accolades for winning their FA Cup semifinal with Reading. The game went to penalties, and Cho took the decisive PK to send West Ham Women to the FA Cup finals against Man City on May 4th.
For her work to dispatch Reading, she received this award:
Last but not least, I got a chance to see Valencia’s Lee Kang-in for a few minutes. The 18 year old prodigy hasn’t been utilized for Valencia’s 1st team in recent weeks, but was sent on as a substitute in a league match win over Levante and yesterday as they wrapped up a quarterfinal Europa League win over Sevilla. He looked good in both appearances (and his secret weapon, a dangerous left foot that delivers crosses with pinpoint accuracy). He’s leaving Spain to join up with Korea’s U20. They’ll begin preparations to participate in the U20 World Cup in Poland, first game against Portugal on May 25th.
Site announcement: we’re making some changes at the Tavern, which we’ll address very soon. In the meantime, I’ll be posting a few items that’s been on the backburner for some time now, but looking forward to Women’s World Cup coverage to begin in June. There’s plenty of interesting things to catch up on in the meantime.
For now, the thought of Son and Tottenham possibly reaching the Champions League finals in Madrid is a lot to contemplate. Nothing certain, Ajax is really in fine form at the moment. But to see this rag tag team overcoming the odds – personally for me it intersects with all the years the Tavern has been keeping tabs on Son’s career. From the breakout season with Hamburg in 2012, it’s been a remarkable journey taken together with the young man. The 20 year old had just declined to join up with Korea’s Olympic squad that beat Japan that summer for the Bronze medal -and with it a much sought after military exemption. He gambled that training hard with Hamburg would give him the chance to make him unplayable for his Bundesliga team, and that his chance to earn military exemption via tournament win would come his way again someday. The gamble paid off -and then some. Son has been prone to some areas of weakness in his game – after all, he only started playing football when he was 10 (makes his rise even more remarkable). Under the tutelage of his strict ex-pro playing father – he developed some aspects of the game extremely diligently (perhaps at the expense of others). But that wasn’t the end of the story, and neither his occasional bad touches, nor his homesickness that initially sent him back to Korea at 16 sidelined his career. There was something else. Courage. Determination. Hard Work. Perseverance. He wasn’t a finished end product at 19. He still isn’t, despite whatever “superstar” tags he’s been given (and more to come after Wednesday’s heroics). That’s the untold story about Son. I could be wrong, but I predict Son will never win the Ballon D’or. The blame could go to his father who again didn’t allow Son to start playing until 10. That could explain some of Son’s nuanced deficits to his game that haunts him even today. He still sometimes loses the ball with inexplicable bad touches. And yet that doesn’t necessarily define the Son -not in the least when you hear the positive narratives European journalists frame about him, nor how the merciless fans in North London have leapt to embrace him. By practicing endlessly, by sheer force of will, by fighting for limited team spots over time, Son’s progress is not static. Something else that’s improved – he’s got renewed confidence, something he’s not always had (and if he has any kryptonite that really plagues him – suffering a lack of confidence would truly be it). Those who underestimate Son do so without understanding the work ethic underpinning his game and the necessary support structure that arguably could be attributed back to the stern father (whom we criticized a moment ago). Of course you’ve noticed that he’s good with both feet? That wasn’t an accident of being born with good ambidextrous attributes. In a Korean culture where baseball is king and domestic football is difficult to find on TV, that immediate environment wouldn’t necessarily have predicted that a son of Chuncheon would rise one day to become the European footballing icon that he is today. Son has overcome the odds by continually improving his game, through trial and error, through brilliant moments and even through the difficult horrendous mistakes made. He is -for lack of a better term – the imperfect world class footballer. Son knows this and behind the scenes, in his mind he’s still working tirelessly to close the gaps and beat the odds. All that mirrors the Korean aspect of who he is. There’s intentional and historical weight to that adjective. That’s the Son that many Koreans all across the diaspora understand and can empathize with. That’s the Son that I know. All these years later as we look on, it’s not a surprise what happened on Wednesday in seeing Son’s contributions to THAT game, perhaps one of the best games the world has ever seen. And the best part: there’s more to come.