James Lawton: Spurs' thrilling pursuit of European glory has become just impossible to ignore
Any success tonight will heap more pressure onto Tottenham's north London neighbours when they face the great Barcelona tomorrow
Tuesday 15 February 2011
While it is perfectly reasonable to agonise about how Arsenal might, if not win, at least avoid dismemberment by Barcelona at the Emirates tomorrow night, we really ought to get first things first.
We should acknowledge the team who have provided the most encouraging, and certainly the most thrilling, evidence that the high-water mark of English presence in the Champions League did not necessarily come and go when Manchester United and Chelsea slugged it out in Moscow three years ago.
You know the ones, they're called Tottenham. They play in white and they have a cockerel on their shirts.
Tonight against Milan at San Siro they will no doubt hope they can, even without the services of Gareth Bale and Luka Modric, recreate some of the stir that accompanied their 3-1 massacre of reigning champions Internazionale at White Hart Lane in November.
With the Serie A leaders Milan lifted by a 4-0 win over Parma at the weekend, Spurs can ill-afford the absence of Bale, a sensation of Europe when he ran stag-like and with brilliant awareness at Inter's celebrated but painfully isolated and exposed Maicon, and the beautiful touch of Modric.
Not the least of Harry Redknapp's achievements, however, is the maintaining of a deep and talented squad, fresh evidence of which was provided by Niko Kranjcar when he produced at Sunderland a match-winning touch of the highest calibre.
Where you have to be most optimistic on behalf of Spurs, though, is in their willingness to listen to Redknapp's most basic football principle. It is that in a short career there are only so many times you get the chance to play beyond your skin and generally agreed potential.
Tottenham may just be forming a habit in this most vital area of the game. It means that any success tonight will move a little more pressure on to their north London neighbours when they face the great Barcelona.
Unavoidable is that the capacity of Arsène Wenger's team to play sublime, winning football is still too prone to breakdown.
Among the theories on their best chances of containing Barça is playing the pace of Theo Walcott at striker in preference to Robin van Persie, passing the ball around in their own half so as to exhaust the supreme practitioners of the pressure game and – this from the cultured young Englishman Jack Wilshere – "rough 'em up" and get in their faces.
The worry is that in their eagerness to get into Barça faces, Arsenal may well again finish up as they did last season, gazing at their own navels.
Win, lose or draw, that is not likely to be the fate of Redknapp's men. The manager is candid about his team: they are what they are, a team of excellent touch and skill who have embarked on a most enjoyable learning curve. Whether they have the tactical depth, and competitive experience, to fight their way into the final stages of the Champions League, we will know a lot better tonight.
In the meantime, we can celebrate the fact that Spurs have already flown an extremely presentable flag in Europe. Wayne Rooney's goal against Manchester City on Saturday has been hailed, reasonably enough, as the one of the season but some of those that came in the rush of Bale's emergence against Inter do not slip easily from the memory. Least of all, surely, does the goal fashioned by Modric and scored by Rafael van der Vaart at White Hart Lane.
Rooney's goal was an explosion of physical strength and superb technique. The one fashioned by Modric for Van der Vaart was worthy of another Spurs team, the first one from British football to win a European trophy in 1963. That was in Rotterdam, when the Spurs of Blanchflower, Jones, White and Greaves – Mackay was injured – dismantled a fine Atletico Madrid 5-1.
Redknapp's team, of course, carry no burden of expectation from another age, but there is, no doubt, a certain historical symmetry in their current progress. You may not be able to awaken a glorious past, but you can be faithful to some of its values. Modric has some of the qualities of John White, the fabled ghost, and if Van der Vaart is not Jimmy Greaves in style or scoring fecundity, he is certainly an attacking player of at times brilliant acumen.
The Dutchman, at least, has survived to explore the possibilities of San Siro tonight. How high can we reasonably pitch them? The cry for caution cannot be ignored. Milan are not Barcelona, either in the sweep of their game or a consistency of performance which makes it easy to identify Barça's weekend draw with modest Gijon as one of those lapses which periodically afflict the greatest of teams, but nor are they the vulnerable, ageing side so brilliantly dissected by Cesc Fabregas at San Siro in 2008.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic may be one of the most over-rated strikers of his age, but he does know where the goal is, as do the young Brazilian Alexandre Pato and the rehabilitating Robinho.
It means that Spurs are faced with another rite of passage, one which if successfully negotiated will surely lift at least some of the pessimism building around the perceived decline of the Premier League's strength in Europe.
Chelsea might be in better shape after the presumed formality of their draw against Copenhagen and the same may also be true of United if they dispose of Marseilles. But for the moment they do not spread terror.
That was the sense of one Spanish observer in Moscow when United and Chelsea went toe to toe. "Only England could produce such football," he said.
It was a statement of awe which didn't survive the following spring, when Messi and his friends played United off the park in Rome. But then, who knows, maybe Spurs will again pick up a few of the pieces. Certainly for one night at least they make a most reasonable claim. It is on our undivided attention.
It was a privilege to watch Ronaldo's final redemption
More than a little sadness must accompany the retirement at 34 of the first, and quite probably the most enduring, Ronaldo.
His dwindling sense that he could any longer inflict himself on the game which, when he was just 20, declared him the best in the world, finally persuaded him to tell his Brazilian club Corinthians that it was time to go.
The pity is that he was never quite able to fulfill that prodigious early promise. This is only a bizarre statement if you forget the expectations that the world's greatest football nation places on their elected deity.
Ronaldo scored 62 goals in 97 internationals but he was also the author of one of the great anti-climaxes in football history when he surrendered, at the last moment, the stage of the 1998 World Cup final to Zinedine Zidane.
There has not been an entirely satisfactory explanation for the shock that came in the Stade de France when Ronaldo failed to appear. The theories include a sudden physical spasm, an attack of epilepsy, even a nervous breakdown as a result of ungovernable pressure.
However, if the prospect of a decade or so of unbridled mastery of the world game was lost on that day, the chance of redemption was not. Ronaldo re-made himself to a degree and on the eve of the 2002 World Cup he promised his compatriots that he would win them the great prize.
It was thus a privilege to be in the Yokohama stadium on the rainy night when Ronaldo fulfilled his promise with two goals against Germany. It was a poor World Cup, shot through with mediocrity, but in the end it had the seal of history – and a moving story of rediscovered commitment.
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