An impressively mature performance from Tottenham in this latest
Champions League match gave them the necessary result to progress to the
quarter-finals in their first campaign in the competition at the expense
of seven times inners AC Milan, who could not get the goal they needed
to put pressure on Spurs.
defiant rearguard display that one would not necessarily associate with
Spurs, they secured a 0-0 score-line that was enough to ensure Peter
Crouch's goal in the San Siro made it 1-0 on aggregate to knock out the
Serie A leaders. And it was a team performance that saw everyone
play their part to a larger or lesser effect.
Some players could not play their normal
game, but put in the effort on behalf of the team and while our
attacking instincts were thwarted by Milan's possession and the system
they played, there was still a solidity that has been missing form
Tottenham's play for a number of years.
With van der Vaart returning to the
line-up, his now familiar European partnership with Crouch was renewed
and Sandro lined up alongside Pienaar, Modric and Lennon in midfield,
with Gareth Bale occupying a seat on the bench. The defence saw
the return of Charlie Corluka after his ankle injury in the first leg.
It saw Spurs set up in a similar way to the first leg, but Milan had
made changes, playing Pato, Robinho and Ibrahimovic up front, while
Thiago Silva moved to a more comfortable defensive position alongside
Nesta and their full backs Abate and Jankulovski were looking to push on
at every occasion. Seedorf captained the side from midfield and
the despised Flamini was in the side there too, with former Spurs
Kevin-Prince Boateng (or Prince as he had on his shirt) lining up
against his old team-mates.
There were a couple of early probes
forward by Spurs, but they were unconvincing, as VDV got a half-shot off
target after Pienaar had worked the ball to him and then the Dutchman
almost got on the end of a Crouch nod-down, but Abbiati got there first
and took what appeared to be a kick for his troubles. The start of
the game saw Milan enjoy a good deal of possession and they moved the
ball quickly to try and open Spurs up. Dawson prevented
Ibrahimovic doing anything when Seedorf lifted a clever pass over the
back line and when Pato got free on the left, his low ball across the
face of goal failed to see any of his team-mates anticipate it and the
good chance went begging.
The referee wasn't too bad all night, but
did seem to have a bit of trouble when the ball was played up to Crouch,
often giving free-kicks against him for backing in, when Nesta or Thiago
Silva went over the top of him to win a header. He also gave some
soft free-kicks to Milan and from one in the 15th minute Ibrahimovic
struck a fierce shot from 25 yards and Gomes dived to his left to push
the ball away to safety.
As in the first leg, Crouch was causing
the Milan defence problems and he won a header to Pienaar's left wing
cross, but rising at the far post, he seemed caught between going for
goal and heading back across goal and the ball floated onto the top of
the goal. But it was the visiting team who looked the more
comfortable in the opening half, with some astute passing giving chances
to their front three, but their efforts were blocked or off target.
That was until the 15th minute, when Nesta's forward pass was flicked
through by Ibrahimovic to Pato, who got past the Spurs back four and
took the ball into the box. As he moved to the left, Gomes came
racing out of goal to push him wider, but the Milan man skipped around
him and pulled the ball back into the centre of the penalty area, with
the goalkeeper out of position. Robinho was waiting for the pass
and his shot was half-hit into the ground and Benoit Assou-Ekotto threw
himself in the way, with the ball bouncing off him and going towards the
net. Luckily, William Gallas had dropped back onto the line and
kicked the waist-high ball away as Robinho closed in.
It was the worst of a number of nervy
moments we Tottenham supporters suffered on a tense night.
Chances were coming more frequently.
A van der Vaart free-kick from slightly left of centre went over by a
couple of feet, Gomes dived low to keep out a Pato drive and then Spurs
got their first shot on target in the 31st minute, as Rafa's low shot
was deflected off a defender's thigh and went into Abbiati's arms.
It had been a tough 45 minutes of football, but Spurs got through to
half-time without any further scares and while the job was half done,
there was still a long way to go. Bale warmed up hard during
half-time and we wondered if he would come on at the start of the second
half, but Harry chose to keep things the same and within a couple of
minutes, it almost paid off.
Sandro picked up the ball and put Lennon
in on the right wing, looking up, the winger picked out Peter Crouch at
the far post with his cross and rising above his marker, the England
striker headed the ball back across goal, where there was no white shirt
waiting, when he might have been better off trying to go for goal.
The tactic now was to get the ball to Lennon as often as possible and
when a Milan attack broke down, the ball was played to him in his own
half. Aaron knocked the ball past Jankulovski and at 33, there is
no way that his legs could keep pace with Lennon now. As the Spurs
man ran past him, he was cynically brought to the floor with a kick on
each ankle, earning the Czech defender a yellow card. Five minutes
in, Lennon played a neat move with Corluka and was released into the
box, where only some fortunate defending by Silva stopped him getting a
shot in and then managing to kick the ball back to his own keeper from
eight yards out.
Tottenham were having some defensive
problems of their own, with the ball not being cleared effectively and
it kept coming back, but the Italian side could not create a
goal-threatening opportunity. Flamini hit a shot across the face
of goal and wide, which only needed a touch from a red and black shirt
to go in, but there was not one on hand. Then it was Lennon again,
who had Milan on the back foot, helped by his marker's yellow card,
meaning he could not dive in on the little winger. One cross
picked out Crouch, but he was pushing down on a defender as he jumped a
little early, then another saw Peter knock down into the middle of the
box, where Luka Modric was just a little late arriving and the ball was
hacked clear. A third advance in quick succession saw his cross
pop up off Seedorf's thigh and with a hint of a touch on his hand before
it went out for a corner, with the referee and the official behind the
goal not interested in giving a penalty.
Twenty minutes into the half, Gomes had a
rush of blood after taking a high ball in the box, when he threw it into
the centre circle for van der Vaart, but the midfielder was on his heels
and Thiago Silva nipped in to take possession. From that the ball
was worked to the right of the box, where Robinho hit a low shot and
Gomes had to redeem himself with a block, that stopped the ball going
past him, but Gallas got in the way to stop the rebound being knocked
past the keeper and Milan's former Manchester City striker had the last
touch of a scramble for the ball which took the ball wide of the goal.
Gareth Bale, who was not fully fit,
replaced the not fully fit van der Vaart and Jermaine Jeans came on to
add fresh legs for Steven Pienaar, who had worked hard blocking Abate's
progress up their right wing. For Milan Antonini came on for the
run-ragged Jankulovski and Boateng limped off to be replaced by
Alexander Merkel, who tried to impose himself with a series of heavy
Milan put together a nice passing move
that opened Tottenham up on our right side, with Merkel and Robinho
putting Pato in with a shooting chance that had the Milan section of the
crowd roaring as the ball rippled the net, but luckily for Spurs, it was
the outside of the side-netting and the score-line remained blank.
Crouch was replaced by Pavlyuchenko with eight minute left, as Spurs
looked to try and hold the ball further up the field a bit better and
the Russian moved the ball wide and won throw-ins and free-kicks at a
good time for Tottenham.
Milan were running out of ideas about how
to break Tottenham down and the game was drifting towards the final
whistle until just into added time, a ball into Ibrahimovic was laid
into the path of Robinho and the Brazilian hit a shot at goal that came
off a Spurs body thrown in front of it and thankfully, the deflection
was enough to take it over the top. With the corner coming in, the
whistle went and a free-kick was given to Tottenham for a foul and then
the final whistle went, releasing a roar of relief and celebration from
the players and the fans.
It was not a classic European encounter,
but one in which Spurs showed that there is more to their game than the
attack, attack, attack philosophy. The defensive work came from
players all over the pitch and not just the back four and while we
failed to see the best of Modric and van der Vaart, they were still part
of a performance that was partly enforce don Spurs by Milan's more
offensive approach, but demonstrated that they are able to dig in if
they need to.
Of all the players who featured in this
mature Spurs showing, it was one of the youngest who gave one of the
most accomplished displays and Sandro showed his growing importance to
the team with a series of well-timed challenges and interceptions and
the confidence to bring the ball away from them to launch attacks.
I think we are seeing the start of a very promising career for the
Brazilian, who has been brought on well by Harry Redknapp.
Sandro's performance and that of the side
as they have gone through the Champions League campaign are indications
that the team are developing under Redknapp into one that he must have
dreamed off for all his years in management. It is one the fans
have longed to see and hopefully, it will be a partnership that last for
a long while to see the club move upwards and onwards.