Italian Serie A leaders AC Milan travelled to White Hart Lane trailing by a 1-0 deficit from first leg. They needed a win over the spirited North London outfit to progress through to the next round. White Hart Lane gave them a hostile reception, especially when former Gooner Mathew Flamini stepped onto the field in those famous red and black stripes. His reckless challenge on Corluka was fresh on everyone’s mind and he was the cynosure of boos as far as the home crowd were concerned. Corluka himself had made a timely return from injury for this all important clash. Bale, the Welsh wizard, was kept on the bench, ostensibly as a plan B for Spurs if things didn’t work out as they’d planned.
At home, in Europe.
Harry’s tactics were allegedly predictable: the Spurs usually start each game at electric pace hoping to blow the rival defence, committing forward in numbers even if it meant they were stretched at the back. This time around, however, he decided to bench Defoe and Pavlyuchenko hoping to bring in long ball tactics that would hopefully find a piece of inspiration to decide this crucial tie. The Spurs started with their maestro Van Der Vaart in the hole just behind the lanky Peter Crouch. In the defense, there was only one question mark as far as team selection went– the right back slot. Alan Hutton who is an attack minded wing back usually starts in that position because he provides an additional outlet for the attack.
The think tank may have certainly thought about deploying Gallas in that position as he is a better reader of the game and is experienced at the highest level and really good in the defensive aspect as well. Ledley King or Kaboul could have easily replaced the former Arsenal and Chelsea star in the central defense. Harry, however, sprung a surprise and decided to risk Corluka who is a defensive-oriented full back. It was a huge morale booster for him as he’d suffered an injury against the same opposition in a reckless challenge. Corluka didn’t get many starts this season and he was deemed second favourite to Hutton most of the time, but for this important fixture Corluka’s defensive mindedness seemed like what the doctor had ordered for a Spurs outfit, considered rickety at the back.
The initial minutes looked like Redknapp was wrong in his assessment that a cagey game would ensue, when both teams raced out all guns blazing. Within two minutes from the start Pienaar found Van Der Vaart who tried making himself useful in front of the penalty box but could only send the ball fizzling past the post. Soon Ibrahimovic found himself in the thick of things in the Spurs’ penalty box, but Dawson recovered to clear the danger.
The game slowed down as visitors grew in confidence with the ball and they moved the ball around while the Spurs tried to block the gaps in the field. Milan had much of the possession but failed to make best use of it as Sandro was very effective in closing down the gaps with some telling interceptions. The little magician, Modric ordinarily dictating terms didn’t get to see much of the ball but his creativity and intelligence shone through even with more than a couple of red and black shirts around him. Milan got a glorious chance to take the lead when Gomes raced from his line, only to be beaten by Pato who returned the ball to fellow Brazilian Robinho to tap it home. Gallas was on hand to clear it off the line even though it took a wicked deflection. Milan will certainly look back at that moment, as one when they could’ve turned the tables on the Spurs.
Crouch’s knock downs caused trouble for most of the teams, but Milan were keen to draw him into committing fouls. Milan had also done their homework early and closely followed each of Van Der Vaart runs into the box and nullifying him as an attacking threat.
On the other hand Milan were playing neat triangles in the Spurs’ half to create opening but they found Sandro’s positioning sense a major stumbling block. They tried to dribble past him and also tried to move the ball around but Lennon and Pienaar were up to the task tracked the runs of Milan wingbacks. Dawson and Gallas put up a disciplined performance at the heart of the Spurs defense and Dawson who was dominant in the air did well to nullify any threat posed by Ibrahimovic. The main threat on the left flank was the surging runs made by Abate, but for the most part he was dealt with by Asou-Ekotto and Pienaar.
Van Der Vaart’s presence ensured Milan would experience jittery moments at the back, and could never go all out in attack. The former Madrid star had a good game until he was replaced by the hugely sought after Gareth Bale. Soon Pienaar too made way for Jenas to ‘park the bus’ completely.
Bale and Lennon too stuck to the plan and were ready to shift into gear every time Spurs retrieved the ball and that prevented the Italians from throwing more bodies forward. The Lilywhites resisted the Italian raids and effectively prevented them from opening the score sheet and that made for another famous night in North London.
It was a wonderful team effort from the North London outfit and it showed another aspect of their game – playing defensively when the situation demanded it, something very important in an elite competition like the Champions League.
Nobody exemplified the spirit of the Spurs better than 21 year old Brazilian Sandro, a sure-fire contender for Man of the Match, who is slowly building his reputation in Europe after conquering Latin America with his former club Internacional. Can the Spurs go marching on to Wembley? It was a distant dream when they were 0-3 down in Berne, but their never-say-die attitude has led to the first big upset of the knockout rounds and it would take a brave man to bet against them repeating it.
– Joseph George