Tottenham's glory nights roll on after they show gritty side to hold Milan
Tottenham Hotspur 0 Milan 0 (Tottenham win 1-0 on aggregate)
This time there was no blizzard of goals and, as for Gareth Bale, he scarcely went on a single run down the left wing. When they come to look back on the great Champions League run of 2010-11, people might not easily recall the details of Tottenham's goalless draw with Milan but they will never forget the night Spurs eliminated one of the competition's greatest clubs.
For the Champions League's great entertainers, who had scored 14 goals in their four previous home ties in this competition before last night, this was an occasion for Spurs to show that they have other depths to their game. They contained and restricted Milan, they defended beautifully – no one more so than captain Michael Dawson – and as a result they are in the last eight of the Champions League in their rookie season.
From last place in the Premier League to the quarter-finals of the biggest club competition in Europe in the space of 28 months is the great improbable story of English football. Harry Redknapp keeps saying that one more win is nothing more than a bonus and then the bonus duly arrives and we start to wonder what will happen next. They surely could not go further than the quarter-finals. Could they?
If the teams left in this tournament can be divided between Barcelona and the rest then Spurs have shown they are more than capable of holding their own among the rest. Last night was a performance that takes Tottenham up yet another level from the giddy, gung-ho new boys ready to trade goals with the opposition. This marked them out as a more mature, composed team.
You need to have a bit of nerve to shut out a strikeforce that includes Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robinho and Alexandre Pato for a whole 90 minutes. Of course, the home support would have loved a goal to add to Peter Crouch's in the first leg in San Siro to calm their nerves but while they waited in vain they still had Dawson and William Gallas to take care of Milan's strikers, which they did in some style.
It might be pushing it to say that Spurs made it look easy, especially when one goal would have tipped the game into extra-time, but there was hardly a siege laid to the home goal. After a rocky start, the 21-year-old Brazilian Sandro was excellent in central midfield. Aaron Lennon came alive after the break and Luka Modric was his usual busy self. Sparks did not fly this time, but there is more than one way to thrive in this competition.
For Redknapp himself, he is the first English manager in the last eight of Europe's top competition since Terry Venables got there with Barcelona in 1986. Redknapp's team did not get the better of the first half but they were very different after the break when he tweaked his midfield. As a manager he has not been embarrassed in the Champions League this year, rather he has thrived in such exalted company.
"This was not," Redknapp pointed out last night, "Raggy-Arsed Rovers – we have beaten Milan" before turning to the poor Italian translator next to him and saying "let's hear what you do with that". But in general he has done a good job of keeping expectations down. He said last night that Spurs fans were "living the impossible dream" already, but if Schalke or Shakhtar Donetsk come out in the quarter-final draw they might not consider the semi-finals impossible at all.
The statistics from last night tell a different story from the battering Arsenal took from Barcelona in the pass completion stakes on Tuesday night. Milan out-passed Spurs 472 to 266 and had 58 per cent of the possession but they never had a period of pressure like the one Redknapp's team exerted at the start of the second half.
In the first half, Spurs had been outplayed in the centre of midfield by a Milan team that seemed always to have a man over at the critical stages. They went nearest to conceding when, on 26 minutes, Pato took the ball round a stranded Heurelho Gomes, pulled it back and Robinho's deflected shot had to be cleared off the line by Gallas.
In attack, Crouch struggled with the crafty Milan strategy of backing into him every time the ball was played up to him in the air. European referees see a clash between Crouch and a defender and they seem unable to contemplate that it is anything other than a foul by the striker.
After the break: a much better Spurs team. They should really have put the tie well beyond Milan with the chances they created at the start of the second half. Starting with Crouch's header at the back post from Lennon's cross one minute into the half.
Under pressure from Clarence Seedorf, Crouch created another good chance with a knockdown to Steven Pienaar on 53 minutes but the South African could not get his foot to it. A few minutes later, Lennon beat Mathieu Flamini all ends up and the ball into the box struck Seedorf on the hand. At this point Milan were wobbling but Spurs could not take advantage.
Bale had been prowling the touchline for some time before Redknapp finally called him over to go into the game. Before last night Spurs' man-of-the-season had played just 25 minutes as a substitute since 22 January and last night he was cautious. There were none of those charges down the left wing. Still, he only needs to step on to the pitch and the mood in White Hart Lane changes.
There was a nagging fear that if Tottenham did not take advantage of that period of dominance they might come to regret it later on. But in fact the end of the game was relatively calm compared to some of Milan's better periods in the first half. Flamini let himself down again with a nasty lunging tackle on the excellent Benoît Assou-Ekotto for which he was booked.
Other than a shot from Robinho, who was played into the right channel by Ignazio Abate, there was no major scare for Spurs. Gomes saved that one. A later hit from Pato on 78 minutes looked dangerous but was wide of the post. On this evidence, Spurs can go at least one better in the next round given the right opponents – which really means anyone but Barcelona.
Man of the match Dawson.
Match rating 5/10.
Referee F De Bleeckere (Belgium).
Barcelona, Shakhtar Donetsk, Tottenham, Schalke and Chelsea (2) or Copenhagen (0), Bayern Munich (1) or Internazionale (0), Manchester United (0) or Marseilles (0), Real Madrid (1) or Lyons (1)
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