Andre Villas-Boas has stripped Tottenham of their diffidence. For years Spurs have been overawed by bigger teams but the character of this old club is changing. Last night, for the second time in five days, Spurs contemptuously dispatched one of Europe’s biggest names at White Hart Lane.
On Sunday they beat Arsenal, forever their looming brothers, with a performance of focus and ruthlessness. Last night it was Internazionale, an ever bigger name but an even more flawed team. The three-times European champions were embarrassed by a furious Spurs display of relentless quality and drive, betraying not a touch of the apologetic respect that has crippled Tottenham teams of the past.
There is none of that now. Maybe it was purged when Andre Villas-Boas masterminded that famous victory at Old Trafford last September but the improvements in quality and confidence now seem to be more striking by the game. Since they overcame Lyons in the last 32 of this competition, their defeats of West Ham United, Arsenal and Inter have all been dramatic, surprising and fuelled by courage. Villas-Boas wanted his team to continue their derby display and so they did.
Of course, nothing is decided in March but there is an increasing sense of vindication regarding everything Spurs have done this year. They are third in the Premier League and, disaster notwithstanding, into the Europa League quarter-finals. The appointment of Villas-Boas is central to this but some of the summer buys – Jan Vertonghen, Gylfi Sigurdsson, both of whom scored, and Mousa Dembélé – were excellent too yesterday in Spurs’ best ensemble performance of the season.
Gareth Bale, it does not need to be said, shone the brightest. In November 2010 a far stronger Inter team could not deal with Bale, then merely a thrilling 21-year-old winger. This version – futuristically complete, implausibly decisive – proved far beyond them, tearing apart even the experienced players – Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso and Cristian Chivu – who had won trophies under Jose Mourinho and been here before.
It only took Bale six minutes to score, his 10th goal in the last eight astonishing games. Sigurdsson cut back inside Zanetti on the left wing and swung over a perfect right-footed cross. Bale leapt over Cambiasso and headed the ball in off the woodwork. Andrea Stramaccioni, the Inter coach, said that Bale had “exploited his physicality” but it would have been inconceivable for the original Bale to dominate a man like Cambiasso.
From that point onwards Bale was provider, as if he was reminding Inter that he could still hurt them from the wing too. His sharp cross to Jermain Defoe forced the first of Samir Handanovic’s many saves. And it was Bale’s delivery which put Spurs 3-0 up soon after the break. Three minutes into the second half Bale’s curled free-kick to the far post found Jan Vertonghen but the Belgian could not make enough contact.
With Chivu and Zanetti in defence you could expect lessons to be learned but they were not. So, four minutes later, they were punished again. Again Bale delivered, this time a corner from the right, and again Vertonghen met it, this time with his head, in the six-yard box. It flew past Handanovic and deservedly so, giving Spurs the 3-0 lead that they should have extended but did not.
The one disappointment was Bale’s booking for diving with Spurs 1-0 up. He fell over Walter Gargano’s tackle in the box, and received his sixth booking for simulation in the last 15 months. This was less harsh than some others Bale has received and it rules him out of the second leg in Milan on Thursday.
But while Bale was, yet again, Spurs’ best player he was not their only good one. Sigurdsson was excellent, playing from the left wing with spirit and precision. He made the first goal and scored the second, tapping in from close range after an excellent move – Dembélé passed to Aaron Lennon who crossed to Defoe whose shot was parried.
Almost every Spurs player would be worth mentioning but Dembélé does seem to have rediscovered his autumn form, starting attacks and moving powerfully through the middle. Scott Parker probably gave his best performance of the season, in defence and attack, nearly setting up a remarkable fourth goal for Lennon with a forward run and a reverse pass.
Spurs’ whole performance was of a team of utmost focus and desire, hassling Inter down for the ball and never giving them a second on the ball. Villas-Boas has made it very clear that this is not less of a priority than the Premier League and his team selection, with just three changes from the north London derby, one of them enforced, was testament to that.
Stramaccioni had admitted before the game that re-qualifying for the Champions League was his main concern and that attitude seemed to have been picked up by his players, with main attacking threats Fredy Guarin and Rodrigo Palacio starting on the bench. There were some good players in those slightly incongruous red shirts but they had none of Spurs’ defensive discipline or application without the ball.
It was too easy for Spurs to carve out chances and far too easy for them to win the ball in midfield. Inter, in fact, had opportunities at the end of the first half through Ricky Alvarez and at the end of the second half through Palacio but the first was missed and the second well saved by Brad Friedel.
Had Spurs won 3-1 or 3-2 it would have not reflected fairly on an excellent evening’s work. Only the poverty of Inter can caution the judgement that this was Spurs’ best performance under Villas-Boas. Now they go to Anfield on Sunday before San Siro next Thursday, and there, even without Gareth Bale, they will not have to do too much to avoid elimination. A place in the quarter-finals awaits if Spurs are brave enough to seize it, and the evidence is building that they are.
Booked: Tottenham Bale. Internazionale Guarin, Pereira
Man of the match Bale. Match rating 7/10
Possession: Tottenham 57%. Internazionale 43%
Attempts on target: Tottenham 12. Internazionale 2
Referee A Lahoz.