Harry Redknapp was yesterday fretting over the fitness of his flying winger Gareth Bale, but the Tottenham Hotspur manager has plenty of other reasons to be optimistic ahead of tonight's Champions League second leg with Milan at White Hart Lane.
On another night the potential loss of Bale might be decisive but, following their 1-0 victory in San Siro, Tottenham still have many reasons to be optimistic ahead of tonight's second leg.
Redknapp described Bale as "struggling" with pains in his legs yesterday, and said: "I would love to have him to start the game, if he was fit enough but it doesn't look like he will be." Redknapp will leave the final decision until this morning but last night he was facing up to playing without the man who ran amok against the European champions Internazionale not once, but twice, earlier this season.
Fabio Capello yesterday led the chorus singing Bale's praises, describing him as the "number one player in the world in his position". Bale may yet prove fit enough to start, but it seemed likely last night that he would start the game on the bench, with Steven Pienaar set to take his place. Bale is likely to come on at some point, certainly if Tottenham need a goal. "If Milan see him on the bench it will give them a few concerns," Redknapp said.
The Spurs manager denied suggestions he was playing mind games over Bale's possible selection, although he kept the door open to picking the 21-year-old winger. It certainly does no harm to have Milan in the dark about whether or not the man who tore Inter's Brazilian defender Maicon to shreds earlier this season will be starting.
Bale himself was giving nothing away. "Milan have a string of big-name players, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho, and 1-0 is a slender lead," he said yesterday. "But I reckon Milan are thinking about what might happen to them. They will be a lot more worried than us. I don't know whether they are preoccupied about me returning to the side. All I can do is focus and give it my best."
The potential loss of Bale, who had looked fit and able in his 25-minute comeback against Wolverhampton Wanderers at the weekend, is a blow to Tottenham, who lead 1-0 following their surprise win in San Siro three weeks ago, but not a fatal one. The European novices have plenty of other reasons to be confident. This may be Tottenham's debut season in the Champions League, but history is very much on their side tonight as they host seven-time winners Milan. Only once in the 19 years of the Champions League's existence has a side done what Milan need to do – go through despite losing the first leg at home – and no one has done it since Ajax against Panathinaikos in 1996.
Another reason to be cheerful is the return of Rafael van der Vaart from a calf injury. The Dutchman will play just off Peter Crouch, the combination that has worked so well in Europe this season and has helped Crouch to seven goals from eight appearances.
Van der Vaart said jibes from Milan that Tottenham are a long-ball team did not concern him. He said: "I think we can play really good football, not just long balls but when Crouch is playing then it's normal we try to reach him because he's a big guy. We want to reach the final and if it's with long balls then it's with long balls."
Tottenham's wonderful home record this season, with four wins in Europe and 14 goals scored and just two conceded, is a further cause for optimism. It is sure to be a raucous occasion, made even more fevered by the provocative actions of former Arsenal midfielder Mathieu Flamini.
The Frenchman was guilty of a terrible foul in the first leg on Vedran Corluka, who has now recovered from the resultant ankle injury. Redknapp said: "Flamini will get a hot reception whatever I say. He knows what to expect. I am sure that he has had it before."
Milan are beset by fitness problems of their own, most notably in midfield where Andrea Pirlo and Massimo Ambrosini are injured, and Gennaro Gattuso is suspended, while Mark van Bommel is cup-tied. Kevin Prince Boateng is also injured, although he trained yesterday, and 19-year-old Alexander Merkel is standing by to deputise. Ibrahimovic is to lead the attack, but has never managed to beat an English side in 12 European games.
Tottenham have it well within their grasp to progress to the last eight, and Redknapp promised they will attack their illustrious visitors.
"If we start thinking we've got to protect the lead... that's not our game. We've got to get at them. We've got to be positive and take the game to them, like we always do at home. It's all about the pace of the game. The pace of our game in England is quicker than the pace of the game in Italy now. We've got to play at Premier League pace," he said.
Beyond tonight's contest, the question remains how high can Tottenham climb, particularly now their hopes of moving to the Olympic Stadium have been dashed. There was no substantial investment on players in January, against Redknapp's wishes, and the manager himself looks likely to leave next year to replace Capello in the England job.
Keeping hold of Bale is vital to Tottenham's long-term plans, and Redknapp acknowledged that to do that, the club must continue its upward path."If we can keep moving forward there's no reason for him to leave here," the Spurs manager said.
Knocking out Milan from the Champions League would be compelling evidence of Tottenham's continuing progress.
Three key confrontations
Michael Dawson v Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Together with William Gallas, the Spurs captain put in a resolute display in the 1-0 first leg win at San Siro last month, helping quell the threat of Ibrahimovic so much that the Swede was reduced to fouling the defender for his late dissallowed goal. The centre-back will again need to be alert to dominate aerially against the 6ft 5in Swede, who has often been accused of failing to perform against English teams, and prevent him adding to his tally of 19 goals this season.
Luka Modric v Mathieu Flamini
Although chasing the game, Milan will have to remain wary of the counter-attack - a move Modric instigated for Peter Crouch's first-leg goal. The diminutive Croat's quick feet and low centre of gravity eludes the most attentive of markers and his ability to retain possession will be key in keeping Milan at bay. Flamini is fortunate to play tonight after his poor tackle on Vedran Corluka – Spurs' playmaker knows what to expect from the tenacious Frenchman.
Peter Crouch v Thiago Silva
Despite struggling for goals domestically, Crouch has flourished in Europe this season with seven goals in eight games, including the decisive away goal at San Siro three weeks ago. The 6ft 7in striker also provides knock downs to midfielders breaking from deep and will look to trouble Silva with his unconventional playing style, which led the Brazilian to describe Crouch this week as "the strongest player I have marked in the Champions League."Reuse content