Tottenham’s middle men step up in victory over Milan

TOTTENHAM have become the masters of exceeding expectations in the Champions League but, despite consistently proving that they belong at this level, few predicted this.

The aim, as Harry Redknapp said himself, was to stay in the tie, keeping it alive for the home leg on March 9.

“We want to make sure we are in the game when we go back to White Hart Lane. It’s important that we do that,” the Spurs boss said on Monday.

Before kick-off, Tottenham had conceded an average of three goals per game on the continent this season, and their defensive efforts in their previous trip to the San Siro against Inter Milan have been well documented.

As if that was not enough, injury meant that Redknapp was unable to call upon Tom Huddlestone or

Jermaine Jenas.

So, as Wilson Palacios and Sandro lined up in the tunnel alongside the likes of Gennaro Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf, Robinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, there was cause for concern.

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After all, this was Sandro’s first Champions League appearance, after the 21-year-old Brazilian was omitted from Spurs’ 25-man European squad for the group stages back in September.

How many Spurs fans would have gladly accepted a 1-1 draw, or even a 2-1 defeat, with an away goal to take back to Tottenham?

Who genuinely foresaw a 1-0 win away against AC Milan? It is not a shock that Spurs scored, but a clean sheet, against one of the strongest forward lines in Europe...?

There was so much to fear – until kick-off, when it immediately became clear that Redknapp’s Tottenham were a match for their hosts – more than a match in fact.

The Italians’ rearguard were nervous about the presence of 6ft 7ins forward Peter Crouch, who caused havoc in the box in the early exchanges, while Aaron Lennon obviously had the beating of his full-back, Luca Antonini.

Those two factors alone provided instant optimism, a simple tactic for beating the seven-time European champions over 180 minutes – and,

although Crouch’s winner did not come because of his aerial advantages, it was Lennon and Crouch who combined for the winner.

It was a goal made in England and, among all the celebrations at the final whistle, there was merit in pausing to acknowledge the home-grown element to this historic, prestigious European triumph.

Tottenham’s Champions League adventure has been masterminded by Redknapp and, for the final 30 minutes, the Spurs rearguard was anchored by centre-backs Michael Dawson and Jonathan Woodgate.

Of course, Spurs are not alone in this respect but, given that Huddlestone, Jenas and Jermain Defoe could all be involved in the return leg, there is unquestionably a strong English core to this ‘English team’ – which is not always the case.

That said, it would be unforgiveable to ignore Spurs’ foreign contingent, particularly after their contributions on Tuesday night.

Rafael Van der Vaart was the star of the first half and, when Luka Modric replaced him, the Croatian played the killer pass for the crucial goal 10 minutes from time, turning defence into attack with one incisive pass through to Lennon on the halfway line.

Heurelho Gomes was a hero once again with two stunning saves, while the likes of Steven Pienaar, Benoit Assou-Ekotto and substitute Niko Kranjcar all played their part.

However, the real stars were two players who have divided opinion for much of the season, the aforementioned Palacios and Sandro, whose partnership in central midfield looked like such a weak spot before kick-off. It proved to be anything but.

“I thought they did a fantastic job,” said Redknapp. “Sandro is a lad with no real experience. He’s played two or three games for us and I felt he and Wilson responded to each other.

“They pressed Milan, they closed them down and didn’t give them space to play. They were very important to us in there and they did a great job.”

That actually undersells the pair, who contrived to outplay Milan’s middle men for most of the first half, playing neat one and two-touch possession football in the centre before feeding the ball to the creative forces of Van der Vaart and Lennon.

The pair’s influence on the ball decreased in the second half as Milan belatedly came to life, but just as the pressure looked about to tell, Spurs broke to score at the other end.

The resulting victory has certainly given Tottenham a stranglehold on this tie, and one foot in the quarter-finals.

Milan will have to attack at the Lane, which will certainly suit Spurs, who will have both Lennon and Gareth Bale available on the counter-attack – and the suspended Gattuso won’t be around to kick them into touch.