Belfast Telegraph

James Lawton: Spurs see off Milan to take place among Europe's elite

Tottenham's Harry Redknapp promised another night of attack, of widening horizons, but sometimes a man is required to whistle in the dark.

But if Harry talked the talk – and who does it better? – he was underpinned by a team who pulled off another formidable walk into new terrain.

Spurs were outclassed for much of this nervy stride into the quarter-finals of the Champions League, not as profoundly as Arsenal 24 hours earlier, it is true, but they were still a long way second in some of football's finer arts.

However, they got what they wanted. They made it through to join the big men in the world's greatest club tournament, and they are a much stronger team for it.

Of course, they were not playing the fabled Barcelona, but there was a worrying fluency and bite about the Milan who were run to near distraction in San Siro.

This was almost as disturbing for Redknapp as the evidence that Heurelho Gomes might be having one of those nights when his personal psychologist seems rather too far away back in Brazil.

Fortunately, the swift and menacing movement of Alexandre Pato that lured the Spurs goalkeeper dangerously off his line and into no-man's land proved less than fatal when Robinho's shot was partially blocked and William Gallas showed his purest defensive instincts while clearing off the line. But if Spurs escaped from what would been a devastating blow inside half an hour, they were not able to grow strong quickly at that potentially broken place.

Indeed, Milan's appetite for the ball was almost as gluttonous as Barcelona's against Arsenal.

The combustible Gennaro Gattuso was missing, of course, but this was hardly a mortal blow to the Rossoneri. On balance they looked at least 50 per cent better than the team who found Spurs too strong, too bold on their home soil. Of course, Milan needed to attack but now they were doing it with pace and at times brilliant direction from the old head of Clarence Seedorf.

With the Milan full-backs Ignazio Abate and Marek Jankulovski consuming space along the flanks, the ancient Dutch master was able to inhabit more than enough space to fashion some sweeping moves.

It meant that far from creating their own promised siege, Spurs were obliged to operate on a foot hardly employed in Italy – the back one. Here, they had a special debt to their scuffling Brazilian Sandro, who was most conspicuous in the absence of more telling contributions from the likes of Luka Modric, Aaron Lennon and Steven Pienaar.

With Rafael van der Vaart and Peter Crouch also unable to inflict themselves significantly in the first half it meant that the Tottenham manager faced a major reclamation job at the interval. What he had to do was re-make Spurs in the image of Champions League marauders, new boys who were still short of the time and still less a reason not to believe in themselves.

His first instinct was hardly a bad one. He paraded Gareth Bale along the touchline, with what confidence at such an early stage of the player's recovery no one could be sure, and least of all Redknapp, to judge by his apprehensive expression.

Rather more solid encouragement at this point came from Lennon, who was no doubt reminded by his manager of the vital impact he had made on San Siro with the late, devastating run that created Crouch's winner in the first leg. The England wide man had given Spurs so much to defend at White Hart Lane and now, at last, he was making his best possible contribution. He was attacking Milan, reminding them of who he was and what he might just be able to do again.

But if Milan were cautioned, they were neither intimidated nor separated from the urgent need to score a goal. The Serie A leaders had come with a cool and superior plan – it was to play the best of the Italian game, that of it which most requires intelligent movement and good technique.

As Spurs were thrown back again, Milan brought on a 19-year-old substitute, Alexander Merkel, who is already being spoken of, not least by Fabio Capello, as an emerging name in the game. Merkel threw himself into the challenge with impressive force as the tireless Sandro, Gallas and Michael Dawson were required to dig deeper into their reserves of resilience.

It was not the Spurs who had dared to be great in Europe, who attacked in a way so appropriate at the 50th anniversary of the sublimely adventurous predecessors who landed an unforgettable Double. But it was an older, wiser team who had survived their most testing examination.

There may not have been a flaring light in the sky above White Hart Lane but there was, in the end, a steady glow. It was the one that comes when a team survives its most difficult night – and makes still another step forward.

Belfast Telegraph


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