Tottenham's Champions League journey back on track after victory over Red Star Belgrade
Their Champions League journey defined the past season for Tottenham Hotspur and it could yet provide salvation for the present one.
On a night when they simply had to win to keep their European campaign alive, the returning Son Heung-Min inspired a convincing win over Red Star Belgrade.
Suddenly, out of the malaise of the last few weeks, here was the Spurs of old, with Son providing a creative and clinical edge to their play, and showing why he has been nominated for the Ballon d’Or.
For Dele Alli in midfield it was a throwback to seasons past. Erik Lamela was also influential, with two assists, and deserved his goal. Harry Kane looked sharp, scoring twice.
This was so much more than a victory for Mauricio Pochettino, whose expression at the final whistle suggested relief as much as celebration.
Anything less than three points here would have surely ended Spurs' Champions League ambitions, just 143 days since they contested last season's final.
After their sluggish start to the league campaign, it is hardly an exaggeration to say their entire season was on the line last night.
In the end, though, it was more simple than Pochettino could have dared imagine, with early goals from Kane and the outstanding Son settling the nerves.
Some of Spurs’ play across the 90 minutes was really stylish, punishing the mistakes in the Red Star defence, which became more glaring and frequent as the match unfolded.
Tottenham still have to navigate what is likely to be an intimidating return leg in Belgrade, which will be a very different test, as Liverpool found out a year ago, and the away tie at group leaders Bayern Munich.
But after the despair of losing 7-2 to the Germans in their last Champions League match, followed by poor results against Brighton and Watford, Spurs fans will hope this can turn their season around.
There was little hint of turmoil last night as Tottenham made a flying start, taking charge with those two early goals, the first after nine minutes from Kane.
It followed a corner won by Serge Aurier and taken by Lamela, with Kane peeling away from Milos Degenek and finding the net with a glancing header.
Lamela was also the creator of the second after 16 minutes. He received a ball down the right from Aurier and, despite slipping as he worked space for the cross, still picked out the run of Son, who arrived at the back post to guide in a left-foot effort.
His goal aside, there was much to admire about Son’s play - drifting in from the left, linking with Kane, always so aware of the options around him and intelligent when in possession.
It was his pass that almost led to a goal for Kane after 130 seconds, but the striker lost his footing as he tried to get past Degenek, and stumbled to the ground.
In the 24th minute Son again shaped to cut inside but, spotting the overlapping run of Ben Davies to his left, instead squared to the full-back. Davies crossed to Lamela, whose rising shot was pushed over by Milan Borjan.
The Red Star goalkeeper also beat away a stinging drive from Ndombele.
Red Star remain the only Serbian and Yugoslav club to have won the European Cup, but the current side are a long way from the glory days of the 1991 champions.
They had a brief spell around the half hour, with Paulo Gazzaniga touching over a cross from Marko Marin, once of Chelsea. Then Marko Gobeljic found Tomane, who stabbed an effort just wide of the target.
Yet a third goal a minute before the break settled any nerves that might have been creeping into the Spurs psyche.
It followed another powerful run from Ndombele, who picked up possession so easily from the careless Marin and drove forward. With options right and left, he passed to Son, who allowed the ball to run on to his left foot and finished well.
The game won, Tottenham sought to ram home their superiority in the second half, exposing their opponents’ defensive shortcomings time and time again.
An example came in the 55th minute as Kane headed down a kick-out from Gazzaniga, with the Red Sea-like parting of the Red Star defence. Kane was alone, waiting for the return pass from Son. Instead, Son switched it right to Lamela, who shot wide of the back post.
Lamela deserved a goal and got it two minutes later.
Again there was so much space for Aurier to charge into down the right, and he cut inside and crossed to Lamela, who turned and finished smartly. It said much that the nearest defender was a Tottenham one, with Jan Vertonghen getting out of the way just before Lamela finished.
Borjan denied Lamela a second - and Spurs a fifth - soon afterwards.
Son had the chance of a hat-trick after more intricate approach play but shot just wide, and was withdrawn to acclaim from the crowd in the 67th minute.
Kane rounded off a five-star, five-goal Spurs performance in the 72nd minute. He timed his run perfectly to stay onside and collect Ndombele’s pass before shooting into the far corner.
Tottenham Hotspur: Gazzaniga, Aurier, Sanchez, Vertonghen (Foyth, 73), Davies, Sissoko, Ndombele, Lamela, Alli (Lo Celso, 79), Son (Dier, 68), Kane
Subs not used: Winks, Eriksen, Lucas Moura, Austin
Red Star: Borjan, Gobeljic, Degenek, Milunovic, Rodic, Canas (Petrovic, 62), Vulic, Garcia, Marin, van La Parra (Vukanovic, 82), Antonio Tomane (Pavkov, 62)
Subs: Popovic, Ivanic, Srdan Babic, Jander,
Referee: Marco Guida (Italy)
Belfast Telegraph Digital