AC Milan v Tottenham Hotspur: Sound of silence at the San Siro is music to Harry Redknapp's ears
Five minutes from the end of this encounter, Harry Redknapp would have heard an aural contribution that to him would have sounded as delicious as the finest aria La Scala can offer.
By Jim White 6:45AM GMT 16 Feb 2011
As injury time began in a stadium growing increasingly silent, the principal noise emanated from the visiting supporters. Perched up in the gods, so far from the action it was a precursor for watching a game at the Olympic Stadium after West Ham take it on, the Londoners were singing in raucous delight as their team homed in on victory.
“Spurs are on their way to Wembley,” they chorused.
It may be a touch optimistic. There will surely be tougher obstacles ahead of the Champions League final at the home of football than a testy, unhappy and ultimately woefully ill-disciplined Milan side. But nonetheless 3,700 visitors knew what it was they were watching: this performance marked Tottenham’s arrival on the European stage.
The last time Spurs were in these parts it was to deliver no more than glorious failure. Gareth Bale’s hat-trick in this same stadium in the autumn against Inter, alerted every Continental club with ambition to his existence.
The Milan fans loved the way it so nearly undermined their rivals. But Bale wasn’t here. And the locals seemed convinced that with the man they wanted to see absent, Spurs’s chances had departed with him. Yet it turned out this was a better, harder, sharper Tottenham without him. Not because he somehow diminishes the team. But because they had learned from their last experience in northern Italy and now knew precisely what to do.
“We pressed them, we closed them, we didn’t give them the chance to play,” said Redknapp, who sounded delighted by such concepts.
Yet the day before the game, the manager had looked puzzled when asked whether injuries to his more creative players would oblige him to be cautious in this tie. He chuckled at the very notion of Spurs trying to defend. Every last twitching fibre at the club is dedicated to the cause of attack, the manager insisted.
Attack is clearly a broad term. Here Redknapp’s tactic was to attack space, attack possession, attack any assumptions his hosts had of being able to control things at their own leisurely pace.
Through sheeting rain, which created a surface that could happily host the next round of Dancing On Ice, for much of this game Redknapp’s team kept Milan pinned in their own half.
Wilson Palacios and Sandro were stationed largely five yards inside their opponents’ territory, easily snaffling up attempted clearances, to the hooted derision of the home crowd. And when they got the ball, the pair invariably passed it out wide. Time and again crosses flew in from Steven Pienaar, Vedrun Corluka and the excellent Aaron Lennon, each seeking out the towering target of Peter Crouch’s head. Such was the intensity of the first-half aerial bombardment, the Milan goalkeeper Christian Abbiati sought sanctuary in the dressing room in the 18th minute.
The Italian aristocrats became the very definition of ratty. Mathieu Flamini’s disgraceful two-footed assault on Corluka should have brought a red card. In the push-me-pull you touchline shoving that ensued, Gennaro Gattuso, who had been getting particularly irked, shoved Joe Jordan in the face. After the final whistle, in an action which can only be described as reckless, he sought out Spurs’s assistant manager and nutted him. Classy it wasn’t.
Yet through it all, Spurs remained resolute. More to the point, as Milan pressed forward with increasing desperation, Tottenham brilliantly managed to do what Redknapp claimed they were genetically incapable of doing: they defended. Led by an indomitable Michael Dawson, the back line blocked shots, dived into tackles, hurled any part of the body they could into the fray. And when those in front of him failed to arrest a Milan attack, Heurelho Gomes made three outstanding saves.
Thus it was when Lennon skipped and dazzled his way into the Milan half, before setting up Crouch for a delightful winner, it seemed an entirely warranted reward for a perfect European performance. As the ball hit the net, silence descended on the ground. Everywhere but in the gods. The goal crowned a grand night for Spurs on the biggest of European stages. And for the return they might even have Bale back. On this evidence it is unlikely Milan will be doing much singing then.
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