By Callum McCarthy
Forget waxing lyrical about ‘magical’ European away nights; of underdogs, giants and David and Goliath battles, for whatever cliche tag has been given to Tottenham Hotspur this season, they have sought to shirk it.
With every performance on the European stage, Spurs have looked increasingly comfortable alongside their more illustrious counterparts, and none more so than tonight.
The timidness that plagued their first half capitulation on their last visit to the Giuseppe Meazza was gone. Playing with two holding midfielders and using Aaron Lennon as their main point of attack in the absence of Gareth Bale, Spurs were stirred but never shaken, negating the static nature of their opponent’s play.
On the rare occasion that their line was broken, goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes was on good form to turn away two Mario Yepes’ headers in the second half — Milan’s only clear cut chances of the game.
Spurs, on the other hand, needed only one to do the damage.
Lennon’s superb burst from deep left Milan flat-footed in the Spurs half, as the home side pushed for a winner to sit back on. Going unchallenged for 50 yards, Lennon casually skipped past the Colombian Yepes, before squaring it for Peter Crouch to awkwardly tap in the only goal of the tie.
Together, Lennon and Crouch had caused consistent problems to the aging Milan back line, and after Rossoneri goalkeeper Christian Abbiati – who provided early resistance to Crouch’s height — suffered what appeared to be a concussion, Crouch took full advantage of his absence, taking the helm of air traffic control in the Milan penalty area virtually unchallenged.
Lennon had his own job to take care of. Without their flying Welshman on the left wing, Spurs looked to Lennon to provide the threat from wide. That, he did, terrorising Luca Antonini at every opportunity. His delivery was lacking on occasion, but Lennon did enough to draw Milan out of their shape, opening the game up for Van Der Vaart and Crouch to play their roles.
Yet, for all the problems that Tottenham posed, Milan’s true enemy came from within.
Skipper Gennaro Gattuso’s reputation as an aggressive ball-winner has seen him become a feared opponent for nearly all who have faced him. For the duration of his career he has played “on the edge”, mixing effectiveness with nastiness unlike any other of his generation.
An intimidator by trade, Gattuso’s temper has always been an issue, but the manner in which it exploded on the biggest stage of them all was both embarrassing and costworthy for his team.
After exchanging a shove and heated words with Spurs assistant manager Joe Jordan during the second half, Gattuso appeared heavily distracted for the remainder of the game.
After engaging in needless tangles with Peter Crouch, Gattuso’s frustration began to boil over, unleashing a savage attack on the San Siro turf after being booked for a rash challenge.
His finale was even more spectacular. As the final whistle blew, Gattuso headed to the touchline for more confrontation with Jordan, resulting in the Milan skipper connecting a headbutt with the former Rossoneri midfielder.
Those incidents and the melee that ensued are set to be probed by UEFA, along with a horror tackle by Mathieu Flamini that left Spurs full back Vedran Corluka on crutches — a crude two-footed lunge that Flamini apologised for post-game.
Both men remained on the pitch for the duration, despite their actions.
Despite the obvious back page fodder provided by the aforementioned, the real story was a resilient Spurs who looked comfortable in their surroundings.
Wilson Palacios and Sandro were solid in anchoring the midfield, protecting the back four with aplomb. With very little in the way of direct running coming at them from midfield, their job was limited but effective — snuffing out passes and reading each wave of attack as it came.
Luka Modric’ introduction midway through the second half brought a calming influence to a Spurs side that looked as though they could be losing their grip on a tight game. His cool head and sublime decision making and distribution helped Tottenham regain a foothold in the match, and it was his outlet pass that led to Lennon’s 50 yard dash to set up the goal.
Milan’s “stars” did not shine. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’ abysmal record against English clubs continued, as his 94th minute strike was struck off for a mixture of offside and a push in the back — a move of desperation from a frustrated man.
Robinho was absent, and only the introduction of Alexandre Pato seemed to inject any life into Milan’s slow and laboured attacks. The fact that their two best chances fell to Yepes, an aging Colombian warhorse, spoke volumes for the level of creativity and energy Milan have showed in recent years.
Spurs were better man for man, and as a team.
Milan face an uphill task if they are to progress to the quarter finals — a two goal cushion is needed to negate Spurs’ away goal. White Hart Lane has been a fortress for Spurs in the Champions League this year, and Spurs will not be nearly as defensive on their own turf.
The likely return of Gareth Bale is set to heap more misery onto the Rossoneri, who must deal with the loss of their skipper for what is likely to be the duration of the tournament.
Underdogs? Not any more.