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James Lawton: Spurs will forget the squalid finish and focus on how they came of age

Gattuso plays the ruffian easy enough but he is the most knowing of pros and his purpose was plain enough. He was hell-bent on stoking up emotion in his team

Are Spurs for real? Are they doing more than making a nice little splash on their return to the top of European football? Yes, we can say that. Indeed we can say more. We can say that this was a brilliant example of a team who have found a way to move to new levels of achievement.

It meant that they not only beat Milan but also pushed them into behaviour which shamed the team's great tradition, which left it rooted in the gutter when their enforcer-in-chief Gennaro Gattuso head-butted Spurs coach Joe Jordan, a man who earned much respect in Milan in his stint as a striker there.

Yet Spurs, and certainly Jordan, will dismiss the squalid climax. The winning was everything, and brilliantly preserved by the French referee who noted the linesman's signal that Zlatan Ibrahimovic, in his most menacing moment of Milan's lost night, blatantly fouled before putting the ball in the net in the last moments of added time.

You can never guarantee a result, never legislate for refereeing oversight but you can go out and play to your strengths and you can keep on doing it because you know it is the right way for you, the best expression of what you have to offer.

No, football doesn't give certainties – only the challenge that Spurs met magnificently in the big stadium that for so long has been one of the great stages of the European game. Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp didn't have any goals to celebrate when he re-gathered his men at the interval but he could tell them, with his hand on his heart, that they had made another step forward in their Champions League adventure. A few months ago they had devastated the other tenants of San Siro, Internazionale, at White Hart Lane and now they were taking the fight to the leaders of Serie A.

Spurs did everything right in the early going, so well, especially down the left, that they could only mourn all over again the absence of the scourge of Inter, Gareth Bale. They might also have yearned for Luka Modric to be on the field rather than the bench but they did have Rafael van der Vaart and he produced some moments of authentic menace. His presence grew – and was most visible early in the second half when an exquisite chip floated just wide after leaving substitute goalkeeper Marco Amelia no more than a dead man awaiting his fate.

Tottenham also had Peter Crouch making dangerous runs, Aaron Lennon flaring on the right, and if Steven Pienaar was not Bale, and perhaps not even the more optimistic Niko Kranjcar, over whom he had won the managerial nod, he was steady, progressive and impressively composed. The trouble was that something had to stir in Milan and if not all that emerged from them was pleasant – and least of all Mathieu Flamini's cynical tackle that put out Vedran Corluka and should have earned a red card – there was no doubt that the replacement of the veteran Clarence Seedorf by the young Brazilian flier Alexandre Pato brought much needed life.

It also brought the most desperate, disgusting behaviour from Gattuso, who pushed both Crouch and Jordan in the face when the tension turned sharply in the direction of anarchy. It was probably more calculated than that, however. Gattuso plays the ruffian easily enough but he is the most knowing of pros and his purpose was plain enough.

He was hell-bent on stoking up emotion and vital signs in his team. He certainly managed this, but at high personal cost – a yellow card that keeps him out of the second leg and surely, when his overall conduct is considered, somewhat longer than that. The initiative though was with Milan now and no doubt Redknapp sought to turn back the red-and-black flow tide when he sent on Modric for the the tiring Van der Vaart, and Kranjcar for Pienaar.

The big reward came, brilliantly, elsewhere. Lennon produced another burst of pure speed and this time kept his head wonderfully well. He broke through a fractured Milan defence, drew the old hero Alessandro Nesta towards him, then placed a perfect ball into the path of Crouch.

Crouch, who had earlier repulsed the close attentions of Gattuso with superb disdain, even mockery, scored as if it were the easiest thing in the world. It was a statement of re-asserted authority that could not have been bettered. It spoke of a team who had once again suggested that they might just indeed be coming of age.