Meelan 0 Tottenham 1
Football at the best of times is unpredictable. Expect the unexpected and such. It’s mostly unpredictable when attempting to assess how a game might pan out based on, well, based on form and selection and tactics and formation – which all stem from plenty of pre-match discussion in the build up to kick-off.
Myself and quite a few of you made a series of assumptions, much like we always do before a game. In this case, it’s AC Milan away and we’ve got a long list of missing players. I won’t talk about you here and instead concentrate for a moment on my preview of the game for a moment. Rather than attempt a zonal marking styled deep thinking analysis, I just opted for the subtle war cry based on the power of belief, emotion. You know, the fluffy stuff. With some controlled attacking football and plenty of heart and tenacity. It’s the easy way to write up a preview. Just ask and hope that the team stand strong together and give it some.
I was naive with my predicted starting eleven but then I hardly care for my foolishness. Because Harry Redknapp, that’s tactically astute Harry Redknapp, got it completely on the money, so much so that perhaps some of the non-believers will nod a gentle acknowledgement in his direction as a way of a thank you for leading the team out in the San Siro in possibly the most unexpected of circumstances in terms of performance and end result. Mature, disciplined and unequivocally focused from start to finish. What’s that? Magnificent? Go on then, and throw me a superb and a great to go with it.
Perhaps part of the misconception pre-match was spending too much time on those assumptions made about how the game would play out. A lot was made of Milan and their defensive and offensive qualities in their domestic campaign. Plenty of superlatives were made of their forwards and their experienced Champions League seasoned performers. Whilst most of us took extracted moments of indecisiveness and weakness from our league games and continued agendas against players we either dislike or don’t rate simply because of inconsistency and frustration back in the bread and butter of the Prem.
Equally so, many critics and neutrals cited our swashbuckling ‘we’re gonna score one more than you’ mantra from the group games and the additional possibility of a re-occurrence of stage fright.
So many potentials. Which is why I kept it simple before the game. Show some heart and some intent without playing over elaborate football that would leave us open to punishment.
‘Would still rather get knocked out giving it a right proper go than conceding defeat by allowing fear to consume us’
What we did instead, and kudos to Harry, is set the team up to be highly competitive in the middle – the foundation to build on for the rest of the side to retain the ball, work tirelessly off it to regain it when lost and endeavour to push into forward positions to possibly carve out an opportunity.
I’m not going to be critical at all at the lack of massive chances/shots on the Milan goal. Let’s just remember nobody gave us a chance of winning, most of us thought we’ve do good to lose 2-1. The application and delivery of the team and instructions the gaffer gave them is testament to what we can achieve when we are completely focused – no matter who is missing.
Doesn’t matter if one of the assumptions made was over-rating the Italians or even under-estimating Harry. This was no fluke 94 minutes of football. This was a set of players proving to themselves, to us, to everybody that they compete at the very top level. I’m sure if we were full strength and Milan had their best side, we’d have witnessed an absolute humdinger. Instead, we got a top class display of character and concentration, frustrating the home side to the point of petulance (go on then Gattuso, have a go if you think you’re hard enough, Jordan eats hairy cavemen for breakfast, turns his milk hairy) and half-chances and cheating.
Tottenham, going all weak at the knees from fear when bullied by Young Boys to standing tall (in one case that extra bit taller) and executing a clinical whack to the back of the head of one of the dons of the European family.
How did we achieve it?
Gomes between the sticks. No dramatics. Just acrobatics. Two brilliant saves, the first game-saving. Did nothing wrong. When this Brazilian is on this type of form you’d let him sleep with your...well, you probably wouldn’t but it’s the thought that counts.
Corluka and BAE both linking up superbly with Lennon and Pienaar down the flanks. Charlie a victim of former scum, always scum Flamini. How he wasn’t sent off for his two-footed tackle is beyond most of us. Big of him to apologise post-game. Wondering how many flowers he would have had to bring to the hospital bed of Corluka if he had broken his leg. Hoping it’s not too serious, he’s (Charlie) a class act and he’s about 1000 times more reliable at the back than Hutton.
Benny was also a class act, as he’s been all season long. Doesn’t care about football, hey? Wish players cared as little as he did. 21 mis-placed passes apparently. Best drop him to the bench then.
Dawson and Gallas were also bang on it. It’s strange how leading up to this game Daws seemed out of sorts, erratic. Both were solid and without error, always in the right place to tidy-up. The whole backline suffocated the Zlatan Zeppelin, burning the big balloon of hot air to the ground. Hardly any time for Ibra, Robinho and the harassed (mostly by Wilson) Seedorf to play clever intricate balls. And even though Pato introduced an improved dimension to Milan’s play in the second half, it still wasn’t enough to generate any ilk of nerves and knee-jerks.
Sandro. Palacios. Our two defensive midfielders in the middle tirelessly biting at ankles. Wilson perhaps over enthusiastic at times and still occasionally too slow to move the ball on when in possession – but enough negatives. His first half performance was part of the catalyst that saw us nullify any threat. Milan’s midfield had no time to think or create and simply failed to take a stranglehold allowing us to dictate our own comfort. Talk about taking responsibility. Well done.
The selection of Sandro was a master-stroke. Pre-match (assumptions) you wondered if it was fair, the baptism of fire. Some doubt lingered, to do with playing him alongside Wilson. It worked perfectly. He’s always struck me as a player that remains unfazed and mentally strong. Just off the Prem pace at times as he finds his feet in England, but in this clash – top drawer. Showed glimpses of the future. Positioning and movement, quick on his feet when using his brain and his tackle (ooh). Just ace. He's going to be a beast. But the type of beast that never looks he's going to break sweat beasting it. Well done Spurs scouts...you do exist afterall.
Outlet of Lennon on the wing and Pienaar on the opposite flank chasing down balls as well as aiding when moving it forward. Azza (with no Bale) was always going to be key to crafting out a chance - what with us set-up with just the two dimensions (Lennon, on the flank, Crouch up top with his head). Got into some great positions, not always the best cross and sometimes not used and found when perhaps his team mates should have looked towards him to pass. But how simple and cool and calm was the only pass that mattered, off the feet of Aaron to the feet of Crouch?
Pienaar, pre-match, spoke about European football being just like a game of chess, and once more, some of us scoffed that this would mean Harry would perhaps look to sit back, defend, soak it up and counter. Not quite sit back and defend with complete lack of ambition, but counter we did – and it was worthy of bishop taking queen, chess board knocked to ground with the opposing player trying to head butt the victor.
van der Vaart, intelligent on the ball, off it, led by example. This guy cost £8M for the love of God, we should write up a cheque to Madrid for an extra £25M because the guilt must be killing us. Cracking effort with the chip, just sublime, just not quite perfect for what would have been the ultimate. What was so brilliant about his role, his responsibility out there, was his link-up play was practically seamless when he left the field of play to be replaced by Modric.
Both players, obviously not 100%, yet both imperious to making it tick, what with the overwhelming physicality of our DM’s allowing pockets of freedom to roam. Luka, armed with remote control (the ball has an electronic chip in it) hardly ever losing possession, dinking here there and everywhere – always looking for a touch and a pass, always making sure we didn’t stagnate and remain motionless. Earlier in the game, especially the first half, I kept thinking had he started I would not have been anywhere near being nervous. The game was so made for him to dictate. It was just good to have him back and no surprise he was involved in the goal.
Sandro interception, Modric releasing Lennon, Lennon running full pelt, finding Crouch, superb finish. 0-1. Bask in a classic counter-attack. What I thought we couldn't do, we did. Soak it up, hit 'em on the break.
And what of Mr Majorly Maligned? Did not expect him to be fit (I guess that was the closet thing to kidology we got pre-match), possibly wasn’t completely in prime condition (sorry if I missed it but I’m guessing he took injections to play?) showed us that on the right stage and most definitely in Europe’s elite competition, he is imperative to how we line-up. It just works. Doesn’t matter how or why, it just does. Diagonal balls to his head (not that he got many of them thanks to the panic marking), the flick-ons, the chest downs and holding up of the ball, his touch and his composure when handed the golden opportunity for that all important away goal. Yet another player who did not stop working till the final whistle. Also did well to keep the dog on its leash. Plenty of bark, no bite. And no problem for Peter to laugh off.
They all worked their socks off. What topped it all off was Woodgate coming on (still having to rewind and re-watch...it’s him, it’s not CGI, I’m certain of it). Niko also impressive when taking to the field.
All of it, the way the script unravelled itself, just perfectly. Selection, temperament, tempo and belief. Confidence simply oozed.
Sure, we had one or two heart in mouth moments, great call at the death from the assistants who disallowed the Ibra bicycle kick. Would have been tragic to draw, even though that would have been more than acceptable before kick-off.
The first half – one of the best 45 minutes I’ve seen in terms of how we conducted ourselves. Owning their patch and dominant in application.
The second half – Milan asked more questions, but just fumbled and stuttered as they attempted to make a statement. Spurs making paper aeroplanes out of the crumbled paper-thin attempts. And on the occasions they did manage to be concise and to the point, we (Gomes especially) countered it with a sterling comeback, faltering any chance of a sustained argument.
Meelan, not having Pirlo in there was very much detrimental to how we all expected them to perform. I guess, perhaps in some way, they were disjointed (something I would have tagged us with when witnessing Sandro and Wilson starting) and they struggled to get to grips leaving us to take the initiative. Even on the back foot we remained tight and crowded out their attacks. Gattuso summed them up. Uncertain, erratic and nervous. He's also apologised for his actions. He'll miss the return. Says he and Jordan were both talking Scottish to each other on the touchline, during their fiery incidents. What's Scots Gaelic for 'you're missing with the wrong man son'?
So, in conclusion, I wanted us to have a go. And we did, but we did so with an unexpected twist. We birthed offensive play from the sheer gritty defensive qualities we displayed from start to finish. Even if it was partly one-dimensional. It was enough to come away victorious. We did not allow anything to rattle us. Even when it got a little tasty and dirty. Although I found myself laughing at Gattuso punching the ground (if that’s meant to rile up the home support perhaps we can get one of our players to run out with a spade in the home leg and dig a hole for the Milan players to hide in).
Wasn't pure Tottenham in terms of exhilarating pulsating expansive football. But it worked. And kudos again to the gaffer for it. Milan, out-smarted. Defensively, flawless. Italy's top side contained. Clean sheet – what more can you ask for? Away goal? Got that too. Every man a hero. Would dearly like to understand the psychology behind how teams can produce football performances like this. I dare us to perform like that week in week out. We won't, but then if we continue to play like this in the CL, our adventure might yet continue into the quarters.
Professional and mature Tottenham. What happened to the 4-3's then?
English clubs have a habit of getting results in the San Siro. Looks like we've gatecrashed yet another party. Outstanding performance. This team proved on their day they can compete with anyone. No fear. Belief, it transcends individuals and players to the next level. We have to win games like last night to breed that winning mentality. The further we get into this competition the better we'll be for it. Take this attitude to the Prem please.
Our evolution continues.
As for the return leg? Harry has to make sure that the players understand this is far from over, backs to wall regardless of last night. We should play out the return leg like we're a goal down. Some of that Spurs v Inter intensity. Bale should be back. Modric and vdV might start. I expect us to revert back to a more traditional controlled attacking style, marauding down both flanks with devastating pace. Refer you again to the dismantling of Inter. That’s how we should set up to play. It’s only 1-0. And even though the likes of Ibra and Robinho flatter to deceive and tend to disappoint, both are more than capable of scoring something out of nothing. Especially as many now would pencil us the favourites to get through.
We can worry about that in three weeks time.
Football, it’s about moments. So please do stick this one in your history books. Until we meet the The Rossoneri again, go get drunk on the fumes of yet another Glory Glory night.
To Dare is to do 'em.