Last night Spurs produced a fearless, compelling and utterly irresistible display of bravura football, the like of which I have seldom seen in my 40 plus seasons of watching my beloved team. Inter Milan, proud champions of Europe, a defence the envy of the competition, were repeatedly torn to shreds. One of the greatest nights in our modern history, but with football like this, there’s scant need to be parochial – this morning the eyes of Europe are upon us.
At the end of the night, a shy, modest young Welshman was anointed as a world-class talent. Gareth Bale shattered Inter with an unstoppable combination of muscular direct running and devastatingly accurate crossing. Top class players with every trick in the book, pace, hard tackling, positioning plus the arcane dark arts of international defenders, they’ve seen it all before but on the night all they saw was his backside as he powered past them. As they thrash around in the middle of the night in storm-tossed demented half-sleep, the number three will float into their consciousness and torment them for evermore.
I’ve seen a game or two in my time but I’ve never seen anything quite like Bale. In full flight this big man is a fearsome sight. he needs a stride or two to get moving but once he gains momentum he’s away. Yet despite this, the most remarkable aspect of his play is the final ball. Viciously swerving crosses that are nigh on impossible to handle or the far post ball on the ground, they are dispatched with great accuracy whilst he’s stampeding through at full tilt. The touch to the byline, the amount of times the ball does not cross the line but is pulled back as his instep curls around it and into the box. This is not a reflex reaction. Rather, he’s learned to pick his passes much better, witness the second and third goals last night. As the blood pumps furiously and every sinew strains, his mind remains focussed and calm. He is twenty-one years old.
It’s not as if Inter were unprepared. Not only was there plenty of first hand evidence from the first leg, Benitez knows the English game intimately, yet his team offered too much space. Even if they had closed him down, Bale would have escaped their clutches. This signals a new strand of defensive tactics. Against Bale, formations are no longer described with players spread across the pitch horizontally. Goal-line to goal-line, 5-3-2. It’s the only way.
This was no one man band. Modric was outstanding in the centre. Low to the ground, seeking space and then filling it with an angled ball or a short stabbing run to collect the pass and move on. Always active, he provided both an outlet for team-mates and a steady supply of creativity. Little arms outstretched, give it to me, give it here, I want it give it to me. The opening goal was exquisite, a simple natural beauty rather than the glamour of those that followed but nonetheless it took the breath away. The touch and turn, head up, how can a football rolling 6 yards be so sumptuous? Van der Vaart, on the same wavelength, as one and in. Stunning.
VDV roamed wild and free in the first half. Not everything came off but Inter could never rest. Hud was solid in the centre, spraying the ball wide and undertaking defensive duties diligently. Gallas had a decent match. He bounces around like tigger, hopping up, down and sideways, alert and balanced, barking out instructions. No thought of bygone days, only Spurs on his mind and new challenges ahead. Lennon occupied Inter’s attention, if only the final ball were better but he made his fair share of opportunities. Another word of praise for Kaboul. He should be way over his head in this company but he’s not having any of that. He wants it, wants it bad, and he had another good game. For our third, the little Inter forward had possession, edge of the box, back to goal, and Kaboul stayed patiently on his feet rather than diving in. Result? We gained possession and Bale disappeared into the wide blue yonder.
Yet the really wondrous aspect of this match was the team itself. No hint of the disjointed, aimless play we’ve seen so often with this squad. They produced a sustained display of attacking endeavour, moving as a single organism with one intent, victory. The movement was excellent throughout with barely a moment to catch their breath. They supported each other magnificently and played from the off with sustained purpose and high tempo. From the kick off Bale took a waist-high pass under pressure and first time knocked it back, to Benny I think. A footnote on a wonderful night but it was a sign of confidence. Spurs imposed themselves on their illustrious opponents from the beginning and never let up. My head was spinning as we tried to break down the Italian barrier – both wings, running, passing, onetwos, the entire gamut of creative football.
I suspect Benitez had no sense that Spurs would dare to attack so consistently. It’s the Champions League, a group match, you want to win but are cautious because losing is a crime. Everyone knows that. Kudos to Redknapp and the coaches for setting up the team in this way and for instilling the will to win. The fluency up front was a joy to behold. Not just VDV and Luka, but Bale making diagonal runs off the ball into the middle and pushing JJ forward when Rafa went off. Inter had barely a moment’s respite from this unceasing assault.
So Bale, this giant of the game, runs amok then amidst the tumult of celebration absent-mindedly checks his hair. In the post match interview, he looks at the floor, says he’s still learning. Last week he had a few days off. Went to stay with his mum. Just a kid of twenty-one. Me, I’ve seen it all before, but I’ve not seen anything like this. Past 1 am, can’t sleep, watch the recording and waves of goosebumps flow down my body from head to toe. After all this time, I should not surprised by what Spurs does to the emotions, but once again they’ve floored me. A head-spinningly joyous night of wild passion and wonder.