Tottenham Hotspur, the flamboyant side lead by Harry Redknapp, made their way into the last-eight of the UEFA Champions League with a gritty, 1-0 aggregate victory over AC Milan, the seven-times winners, yesterday evening.
Spurs have beaten the Rossoneri over two legs, and beaten them comfortably, without ever really being troubled.
This therefore, begs the question: Just how far can Spurs go? And are they genuine contenders for this seasons Champions League crown?
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, we must put this result into context. This was by no means a vintage AC Milan side. Far from it.
The watching England boss Fabio Capello, mastermind behind the truly great Milan side of 1994 – containing the likes of Italian legends Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini, French World Cup winner Marcel Desailly, Croatian playmaker Zvonomir Boban and perhaps the best striker of his generation, Marco van Basten – must have been wincing, watching the 2011 side fail to breakdown a resolute Spurs defence.
This latest incarnation aren’t a patch on that 1994 side, both defensively or offensively, nor are they as talented as the group Carlo Ancelotti managed from 2005-07, a team who reached two Champions League finals, and a semi-final inbetween.
However, for all Milan’s faults, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the mercurial Swedish striker’s latest no-show on English soil, principle among them, this was still a stern test for Spurs.
The top side in Serie A this campaign (although it will be pointed out that all Italian sides, except Internazionale, have already been vanquished from both european competitions), packed full of stars with international pedigree, and Clarence Seedorf, the Dutch legend who has won the Champions League with three different clubs. As Redknapp put it after the event: “We were playing AC Milan here, not Raggy Arsed Rovers”.
Prior to kick-off at White Hart Lane, it was pointed out by many ‘experts’ that Spurs couldn’t defend. They would need to score as they couldn’t hold an undoubtedly talented Milan front three, the aforementioned Ibrahimovic, Robinho, the fleet-footed Brazilian, and Alexandre Pato his international team-mate, at bay for another 90 minutes. Spurs were incapable of keeping a clean sheet.
They did. They did so comfortably.
Redknapp was spot on with his defensive tactics, something that won’t have been said when they trailed 3-0 to Young Boys Bern in the qualifying round, nor when they were blown away by Inter’s opening salvo at the San Siro during the group stage.
Since that night, the 64-year-old has learned when to vary his sides tactics between the gung-ho all-out attacking style which makes them such a joy to watch, and a more conservative approach. He showed as much in the first leg. The second meeting merely confirmed the fact.
Last night, the wily former West Ham United and Portsmouth manager went for the latter, more conservative approach, not leaving space for their opponents to exploit.
Skipper Michael Dawson and William Gallas marshalled the deep-lying defence superbly, allowing no space in behind, the full-backs, Vedran Corluka and Benoit Assou-Ekotto kept compact, not allowing room between themselves and their centre-halves for the dynamic Brazilian Pato to dart into.
Moreover, Redknapp placed his store in young holding midfielder Sandro, the 21-year-old who is already a Copa Libertadores winner – the South American Champions League equivalent – from his time with Internacional, rather than the more experienced Wilson Palacios. The Brazilian was nothing short-of outstanding.
Collectively they, and their more attack-minded team-mates, held Milan at bay, meaning Heuelho Gomes, the ‘keeper who previously reached the semi-finals of this competition with PSV Eindhoven in 2007 – only to be beaten by AC Milan – was barely tested.
Going forward, the likes of Luka Modric, Rafael van der Vaart and during his 20 minute cameo Gareth Bale weren’t at their best. But along with Aaron Lennon and Peter Crouch we already know what they can do. We know they can hurt, even destroy sides. Spurs weren’t top-scorers in the group stage for nothing.
Their attacking quality isn’t in doubt. A fully-fit Bale, called the best player in the world by Fabio Capello yesterday, has already put in arguably the best virtuoso performance in Europe this season, with his hat-trick in the 4-3 defeat to Inter. His dismantling of Maicon, the Inter right-back in the 3-1 victory at White Hart Lane, comes perhaps a close second.
Aaron Lennon’s pace and trickery will cause any left-back problems. His final delivery is also improving. Lennon and Bale are two out-and-out wingers, who are amongst the best counter-attacking players in world football.
In England strker Crouch, they have an aerial threat who top-level defenders just don’t like playing against – Thiago Silva, the highly-rated Milan centre-half has described him as his toughest opponent – and whose awkward, gangly presence seems to bring out the best in van der Vaart, the Dutch attacker, whose touch, vision, and cool finishing from the trequarista role in which he is employed, have given Spurs a new dimension.
However, the key to their attacking play, the hub of the team, is the diminutive Croatian playmaker Luka Modric.
Modric joined Spurs for £16.5m from Dinamo Zagreb in 2008. If he were to leave White Hart Lane he’d almost certainly command a fee of double that figure.
With stunning technique, an eye for the killer pass and the ability to manipulate the ball to carry out whatever action he wishes, Modric could, as his manager quite rightly says, play for any team in the world.
But he isn’t all about thrilling attacking play and skills. The midfield maestro can tackle, hassle and harry opponents into making mistakes whilst he also relieves pressure on his side by taking possession in difficult situations and finding a team-mate, before making himself available to receive the ball again. In his art, he is second perhaps only to the Barcelona and Spain midfielder Xavi Hernandez, but is as important to Spurs as Xavi is to Los Cules.
Any progress Spurs make will be down to the team ethic, and each player working to get the best out of one another. The side sticking to what they do best: aggressive, counter attacks at a high tempo, regaining shape and defending deep when they lose possession, ready to break again.
With the talent they possess, there is no reason that they can’t be this years Bayer Leverkusen (finalists in 2002) or Porto (winners in 2004). Why can’t a move involving Modric, spreading play to Gareth Bale, who powers past his full-back and crosses, for Crouch to nod down for van der Vaart to sidefoot into the back of the net, take place at Wembley on May 28?
But what they must not do, what they would be loathe to do, is not back themselves now, ala bitter rivals Arsenal in Camp Nou. Redknapp and his players must keep faith with the style that has gotten them this far, and not change their principles out of fear, as Arsene Wenger and his side did when faced by a better side.
Last night Redknapp’s side proved, as much to themselves as to everyone watching, that they can keep good sides at bay. They showed that when up against it, they can hold their nerve. In the first leg, as they have throughout their european adventure, they proved they could score. Over the two legs, they’ve proven that they can beat a member of European football’s elite.
If they’re to go all the way in this season’s competition they’ll need to play well and will need a slice of luck. A quarter-final draw against German side Schalke 04 – Felix Magath’s side look the weakest of the last eight possibles – rather than Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid, would be more than favourable.
Nonetheless, there is nothing that they should be scared of. Well almost nothing.
Maybe Barcelona, with their gorgeous passing style, the brilliant midfielders Xavi and Andres Iniesta, Spain’s record goalscorer David Villa, the one man right-hand-side that is Daniel Alves and the world’s best player Lionel Messi in their ranks, are the only side Spurs should fear. Maybe.
Franklin D Roosevelt once said: “The only thing We have to fear is fear itself.”
The side from North London, should perhaps now be thinking along those same lines .