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Tottenham, Gareth Bale Continue Hot Run, Whip Inter Milan in Europa League

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Tottenham, Gareth Bale Continue Hot Run, Whip Inter Milan in Europa League
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Maybe the Premier League isn't quite done yet in Europe, and maybe Spurs and Gareth Bale are just getting started.

The first part of that statement has everything to do with the second leg, of course, but after one leg of UEFA Europa League Round of 16 action Thursday night at White Hart Lane, Tottenham Hotspur are in commanding position with a 3-0 victory.

As for that second part, the outcome next week in the San Siro matters little, even with Bale set to miss out. Having already undertaken a North London coup, Tottenham Hotspur are a team conspicuously on the rise. With a top-four Premier League finish in sight and the Champions League beckoning, the next objective, naturally, will be Europe.

It's here, though, as the discussion turns toward the long term, where everything has to do with Bale. Unlike the yellow-card-induced ban he'll serve next week in Milan, Bale's decision to stay or leave North London's white half this summer will have far-reaching consequences for the club.

Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

While first-year manager Andre Villas-Boas attempts to build a team to compete for multiple honors, the most important and indispensable ingredients are the blossoming Welsh midfielder's power, speed and nose for goal.

Already Inter's tormentor in another European campaign, Bale demonstrated that reality once again Thursday. He needed only six minutes to do so. Rising highest and hanging midair longest to meet Gylfi Sigurdsson's cross from the left, Bale put Tottenham ahead with a skillful sixth-minute header.

Jermain Defoe nearly doubled the advantage two minutes later, and even after his shot was saved, Inter's relief was only temporary. In the 18th minute, Aaron Lennon attacked the right flank and crossed for Defoe, whose turn and shot rebounded invitingly for Sigurdsson to sweep home for a 2-0 lead.

Spurs were flying, but meanwhile there remained cause for concern. Three minutes before the second goal, Bale was booked for a dive in the box, and the yellow card meant he will miss the return leg next week.

It also highlighted perhaps the main flaw remaining in Bale's game.

Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Contrary to the currently accepted mythology, Bale can in fact be stopped—via his affinity for the occasional swan dive. In that sense, Bale is both the stopper and the stoppee, the throttle and the anti-lock brakes, the self-contained source of both the rocket fuel for his rise and the chains that (barely) keep him earthbound.

On this night, with Inter defending so poorly and performing so indifferently, it didn't matter. Apart from a brief flurry of attacking flair near the end of the first half, the Nerazzurri hardly showed an ounce of intent in Tottenham's end.

Not long after the break, defender Jan Vertonghen added Spurs' third, thumping home a header from a corner while unmarked in the box. That ended the contest with a full half of playing time remaining and seemed to shut the door on a San Siro fightback for Inter Milan.

Spurs won't be the same team next week with Bale missing out, but based on the evidence of Thursday night, Inter won't have a hope of progressing. In fairness, this was a weakened Inter side missing six first-teamers, and against a Tottenham team flush with confidence, they hardly had a chance.

That's what a run of one defeat in all competitions since Dec. 9 can do for a team. Such a run should also hint at why Villas-Boas selected a strong squad with a trip to Anfield in the league looming this weekend.

On this form, it's hard to see Spurs losing anytime soon, and that applies in both the league and in continental competition. And coincidentally enough, before long Tottenham might just be England's last representatives in Europe.

Manchester United are out of the Champions League (in admittedly controversial style), with Arsenal surely soon to follow. Both those teams faced stiffer opposition this season in a more prestigious competition, but with every positive result Spurs are showing they belong with the big boys as well.

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