Tottenham Hotspur Are Champions League Contenders: Admit It
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There's really no way to deny the fact that Tottenham Hotspur have come leaps and bounds under Harry Redknapp, but their display at the San Siro can leave no doubt as to the danger they pose to the rest of the Champions League.
Of course this was only the first leg, and yes we're still in the round of 16, but the signs are more than encouraging. Spurs fans of course won't be getting too carried away with this victory, but this team can no longer be considered underdogs and should start getting the respect they deserve, regardless of their relatively limited experience in European competition.
It's not hyperbolic in any manner to say that AC Milan have a mountain to climb at White Hart Lane.
First and foremost it was great to see the media finally cut the verbal flow about Gareth Bale. Yes, arguably he's Tottenham's most exciting player, but the amount of press regarding a "Gareth-less Bale" having absolutely no chance against the Italians was overwhelmingly short-sighted.
Not that I'm directly comparing the two but just as Messi is simply a portion of the multi-cogged machine that is Barcelona, Bale is just one piece of the puzzle. The Welshman's performance against Inter was incredible but can be consigned to history now that the Champions League is in the business end of the schedule.
If the prematch commentary was to be believed, it seemed Spurs had absolutely no hope without Bale and as the game duly showed that is a ludicrous statement.
Tactically there was an almost binary opposition to the two teams. Milan was ponderously slow in the buildup, narrow as a Viking longboat, and faded badly after huffing and puffing in the second half. Tottenham's 4-4-1-1 was full of pace and invention on the wings, guts and steel in the middle and seemed to grow more determined the longer the game continued.
Hauling off the useless Clarence Seedorf at halftime to bring on Pato up front and pulling Robinho back seemed to give Milan's attack a little more bite due to the young Brazilian's movement and hunger but ultimately Spurs' rearguard stood firm.
Every successful team seems to have that backs-to-the-wall defender that throws himself about in the final third of a match and makes the difference. Liverpool rely on an evergreen Jaime Carragher, Chelsea depend on "England's Brave and Loyal John Terry" while Man United have the privilege of calling on the services of Nemanja Vidić. Michael Dawson was outstanding against Milan.
As good as Spurs were in the first half, AC Milan were equally horrendous. I don't think it needs to be said anymore but outside of Serie A Zlatan Ibrahimović goes missing and right on cue he was anonymous against Spurs. Without Pirlo, Milan had few ideas in midfield going forward, Seedorf and then Robinho providing little creativity in the trequarista role the few times they even received the ball.
Out of the entire AC Milan team it seemed only their right-back, Ignazio Abate, had any appetite for breaking forward quickly and multiple times he could be seen screaming in frustration as Milan took too long to move the ball.
The only times Gomez was really called into action (and saved impressively) were from Mario Yepes headers when the center back was forward around set-pieces. Based on the evidence at the San Siro it will only be through a defensive lapse that AC Milan will breach Spurs.
Tottenham dealt with Bale's forced absence by doing exactly what Redknapp said he would: attack. Stephen Pienaar had a confident outing on his Champions League debut, and although not as fast as Bale he combined excellently on the left with the overlapping Assou-Ekotto where most of Spurs attacks came in the first half.
Everyone knows how fast Aaron Lennon is but somehow AC Milan didn't have a plan to counter this. I don't think there was a single scenario where he didn't beat Atonini. A counter-attacking goal was always going to come from Lennon, though he executed masterfully when given the chance.
Aside from the Bale droll, many column inches were given to the debut of Sandro in Spurs' midfield. Anyone still have any doubts? The Brazilian and Palacious did the dirty work all night and rarely was any attention drawn to their performance, just the way a defensive midfielder would want it.
Finally, you can't talk about the game without a look at match-winner Peter Crouch. As a Liverpool fan I was frustrated with Crouch as he just didn't seem to offer enough. Spurs don't hide their strategy of crossing to Crouch at the back post given any opportunity but it was the striker's work rate that was mightily impressive at the San Siro.
From kickoff to finish he left absolutely everything on the pitch, from running his lines, supporting on counter-attacks and tracking his man back as far as Spurs' 18-yard box. Late in the game he slid in to prevent a corner deep in Milan's half at full stretch which ultimately came to nothing but it just shows how hard he worked that night.
His link-up play with Van der Vaart has been key to Tottenham's success in the Premier League but Crouch as he will tell you himself is so much more than a forehead looming ominously in an opponent's penalty area.
What kind of team exactly is capable of winning the Champions League? A team that can score away goals. Check. A team that has a match-winner in their ranks; arguably you could consider Rafael van der Vaart, Gareth Bale as well as Luka Modrić in this category. A team that can defend when their backs are up against the wall (à la Inter vs. Barcelona last season), which Spurs proved they could at the San Siro.
We all know how injury-plagued their defense is, so we'll have to see how that unfolds. A team who can nullify the opposition with their tactics; the media gives Spurs little credit for this but Harry hasn't gotten this far without knowing a thing or two. A team that can ride on the wave of their home support? We'll find out at White Hart Lane won't we?
And finally, every Champions League winner from deep in history to last year needed some bloody luck!
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