Glory comes in many forms. Rather than seizing the moment, last night its mantle was placed round our shoulders, the creases gently smoothed out. Hopes of snatching the prize in the cavalier fashion that has characterised previous home performances steadily evaporated in the face of the reality of a purposeful Milan team. Then, gradually, other qualities emerged that are just as worthy: resilience, grit, organisation. Our moment became the final whistle, when we discovered that glory tastes just as sweet however it is gained.
Tottenham Hotspur have reached the quarter finals of the Champions League. The achievement speaks for itself and any embellishment from me detracts from that simple bold statement of fact. The Champions League. Quarter finals.
For long years we looked on, the Champions League a fictional drama played out at peak times on the box, surely, because it wasn’t anything to do with us. Pretending that second legs in the Europa Cup against teams we had never hard of was a ‘glory night’. It was good to be part of that, sure, let’s not detract from that, but a glory night? I was there for those, and no sir, they were no such thing.
When finally we made it, we were so shocked, we were 3 down after half an hour to a team with a name straight out of Carry On Switzerland. Fans of the other teams said we had ideas above our station, no longer a big club, this proved they were right. Four down at half time in the San Siro and relieved it wasn’t more, they were right. 45 minutes later, Europe looked up from its paper, held back from changing channels to something more interesting and raised one eyebrow. After 90 more at the Lane, Europe was on the edge of its seat. Now, the holders of the European Cup – beaten. Leaders of Serie A – beaten. Europe’s ticked us on its favourites list. The name Tottenham Hotspur resounds across Europe once more.
Full, unreserved credit to Redknapp, the coaches and the whole squad for this outstanding success. There have been mistakes along the way but we have learned quickly. Over the 2 legs against Milan, we defended assiduously with focus, application and great determination. Last night we found heroes not in our rampaging wingers but 2 centre backs, Dawson and Gallas, who refused to give ground despite being under periods of sustained pressure. From first to last, they stayed in shape, timed perfectly their interventions and Dawson in particular headed away the crosses that came later as Milan pressed forward.
Very early on, Ibrahimovic moved onto a long through ball, the excellent Seedorf I think, that reached the heart of our defence far too easily. Daws was ready, however, and at full stretch expertly tipped it away for a corner. This seemed a portent of things to come. It was, but not how I expected. Rather than it being only a matter of time until another such chance was converted, it encapsulated the duel to come. For the most part, we would keep Milan under control. Certainly at full stretch on many occasions, but like Dawson’s touch, it was enough.
Gallas saved us by knocking one off the line. Even at such a desperate moment, he retained his composure, as if that had been his cunning plan all along. In future, Willy old son, when they say ‘goal line clearance’ you don’t have to take it quite so literally. Corluka and Assou-Ekotto also played well. Tucked in alongside the centre backs, unusual discipline for us, the two won the ball and limited the times Milan could slide the ball into those channels, a move Pato and Robiniho thrive upon. Usually but not last night. Neither could they get round the back. This top class attack was reduced to only a few genuine chances in the match. Lots of near chances that caused this heart to race but gradually it became clear that by and large we were winning that battle in the box. Behind them, Gomes was seldom called upon but was not found wanting, two good saves in the first half, a couple more with arms and legs all over the place, no style but good enough so who cares.
The other remarkable feature of this tie is the emergence of a top class midfielder around whom this team could be built and who could lead us to further success. Sandro was wonderful, the best player on the field over the two legs, above the glittering array of established names around him. Time and again, especially in the second half, he put his foot in, was the man making the block or tucking body between ball and opponent. Once he has it, he can pass or play. The Milan attack breaks down around him, moments later this athlete is galloping upfield, scowling with steely determination as he learns the English game, up and down, up and back.
I’ve said on several occasions that to me he’s a atural defensive midfielder because of the positions he takes up, nestling in front of the back four and most importantly for our defence, tracking runners into the box or sitting in the channels amongst the back four. Above all, he’s brave enough under pressure to take command and go decisively for the ball under pressure to cut out a cross in the crowded box. Not the finished article – he was furious with himself when he gave the ball away in the second half and Milan advanced on goal – but he has learned so quickly. I haven’t looked it up but wasn’t he excluded from the first CL squad. Not good enough then, now a master of the midfield. He’s 21 years old.
Redknapp was brave too to play him in such a key tie. His faith was amply rewarded. For once we had a Plan B: Milam relentlessly pressed us further and further back. Their midfield three had the centre and we lacked width on both sides to exploit their narrowness. They prevented Lennon being used as an outlet. It was dangerous to concede ground up the pitch and I longed for more mobile front men who could chase and stop the flow of passes from the Milan back four. However, Milan are at their most dangerous if Pato and Robiniho have space between our back four and the midfield, so falling back not only limited that (again we did well in this respect in the second half) but aslo allowed Gallas and Dawson to stay in the box where they are at their best.
His substitutions were impeccably timed. Bale seldom touched the ball but kept Milan occupied: they knew he was there and that’s enough. Jenas provided an injection of bounce and energy that lifted the whole team in a crucial period. He did so well. Pav was on to provide some running up front to cut out passing from deep. Crouch was tired by then and never the most flowing of movers. Milan had him sussed: little nudges, making a back then falling, and Crouchie can’t resist putting his hands on the shoulders as he jumps. I know, where else are they supposed to be, that’s the level of his arms compared with the rest of the human race, but he was unnecessarily clumsy at times and the long ball/knock down tactic became increasingly naive. He had his moment, the best chance, maybe our only genuine chance on the night, but fluffed it.
Lennon got on the ball more in the second half and was always a danger in that period. A series of decent crosses didn’t amount to much – we couldn’t get men into the box to support Crouch – but his forays offered much needed respite to the defence and were a constant worry to Milan.
This was one of those performances that’s great once you know the score. I’m reflecting on how the composed dedication of the players delivered the result but at the time, it’s blood thumping heart-stopping plutzing for fuck’s sake get rid of the fucker football. Someone said to me this morning that they enjoyed it even more after watching the replay. That’s because you know the outcome! Spurs were guilty of giving away possession far too easily. Some of this was due to Milan’s pressure, of course, but some was wasteful and plain crazy. The incident where Gomes scrambled a save cried out for caution to slow things down a fraction, then he chooses to throw the ball directly to an opponent and back they came. No matter how many saves he makes, this behaviour creates turbulence throughout the side.
Having said this, me the arch worrier became increasingly certain (honest!) that in the last 15 minutes we were not going to concede. Time and again we were first to the ball all over the pitch. Milan thumped one over with about 7 or 8 minutes left and they slumped, collectively. Relief tinged the emotion ringing round the ground in the last few minutes but also we knew the team needed a final lift as time wore on. Simple songs echoing in the dark.
So you’re in the Champions League quarter finals, I don’t know what to do. Never been here before. Somehow it didn’t seem right to get up and leave, like a normal game. Instead of slipping gratefully through the cut-throughs to the car, we wandered up to the High Road and let the throng flood past, a jostling mass of navy blue and white, of shared joy. The crowd swept us up eventually and we were away, the sanctity of the car an anti-climax because we wanted this feeling to last. It will: it’s better this morning and growing stronger. This morning I have serious business at work but I can’t stop grinning. Adrianna, she who knows nothing about the game and cares even less, has e-mailed to say well done, she’s happy too. This feeling is contagious and it’s not going for a long while yet. As Harry says, it’s the impossible dream. Except this is reality. Outstanding.