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As I post this blog, I'm attempting to figure out which fact amazes me more: that Spurs have qualified for the final eight of the Champions League, or that you can buy a Margarita (with a salted plastic rim, no less) from a drive-through window in the State of Louisiana. While I continue to ponder the question, Columnist James revels in Spurs' remarkable Champions League campaign:
One has been likened by Martin Samuels to Homer Simpson’s famous line about alcohol (“The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems”). One was an almost afterthought, free transfer acquisition who had played for a despised North London rival and who was consequently slow to gain acceptance from supporters. One was a complete afterthought, South American signing who arrived at the club inexplicably two weeks late and whom the manager claimed to have forgotten about. The last has been adequate but never quite lived up to the bulldog central defense role that so many teams need to experience league and cup success, and had an infamous vapor-locked brain implosion which resulted in his sending off and his club’s crashing out of the FA Cup against lowly Fulham.
It is perhaps a testament to how much can change over the course of six months, Spurs’ maturation as a club in the same time period, and Harry Redknapp’s brilliant stewardship that a team which found themselves down 3 - nil to Young Boys (Young Boys!) 28 minutes into the opening round of qualifying have now advanced to the last eight of the Champions League, 1-0 aggregate, over the seven-time European champion AC Milan (AC Milan!). And the second leg 0-0 nail-biting slog of a draw was due in large part to the heroics of Heurelho Gomes, William Gallas, Sandro and Michael Dawson. Not the magnificent Bale. Not the Dutch Talisman. Not Modric. Not even Defoe (who at one time was, and perhaps is, showing signs of again becoming a prolific goal scorer). Gomes, Gallas, Dawson and Sandro were the undisputed heroes of this match.
First, Gomes. This game was a microcosm of Gomes. He withstood 16 of Milan’s shots (contrasted to only 8 of Spurs'). He made two horrendous errors – one an ill conceived challenge out of his goal another a throw directly to the other team. The first resulted in a goal mouth clearance by the ultra steady Gallas and the other a superlative save by Gomes himself. The series of events encapsulated the maddening inconsistency of the goalie – capable at times of supreme brilliance and at others of colossal idiocy. We Yids live by the Heurelho, and we die by the Heurelho.
As for Gallas, one wonders how close to the Premier League relegation zone Spurs would be without this former Gooner, whose transfer caused such a stir last August. And honestly, watching his early season matches, it was difficult to foresee him playing an important role in anything apart from continuing Spurs' legacy of leaky central defense. His mobility in those early games looked like L.A. Rams-era Joe Namath. This turned out to be, however, fitness – not age. Since mid-October Gallas has been a rock of consistency. No Spurs defender has played more minutes, and most certainly played better, than Gallas. It is now impossible to imagine him not on the team and with King’s career in jeopardy, his signing on a free transfer looks ever more brilliant by the week. Gallas’ goal mouth clearance of a Robinho drive in the 26th minute was the play of the game.
And the young Sandro? The early word from Harry was that he was athletic, good with the ball but raw, and one got the sense he would need to mature upstairs considerably before seeing regular time. Consider the maturation process complete. Sandro was all over the field – disrupting Milan in the middle, handling the ball for extended periods, at times even charging down the right wing. He is big, fast, fluid and heady – solid in the air and quick on the ground. Pairing brilliantly first with Palacios in the first leg and with Modric last night, he has remained composed and disciplined. It is easy to imagine Milan’s 16 shots doubled if not for his performance last night. MVP of the match and perhaps of the aggregate.
Dawson, too, has been rock steady in this tournament and, apart from his implosion against Fulham several weeks ago, is fully deserving of the armband. While there has been the disappointment of potential unmet, the reality is that Dawson will never be a fast, strong relentless central defender like Vidic. He will get occasionally muscled on set pieces in the Premiership and he will have difficulty coping at times with more agile forwards. But, like Gallas, he plays with great positional discipline and the muscle issue is much less of a problem against the European clubs.
So, these four, like the entire team, were able to play a composed, disciplined, and dare we say defensive, game to take the aggregate from the charm-wagon that is AC Milan. While most expected Harry – with a healthy Modric in the middle and the fleet Lennon on the right – to attack, apart from the first five minutes, Spurs were content to dig in. This was especially true as it became apparent that Milan were playing a much more spirited and competent game than in the first leg. The newly healthy Pato was a continuous threat, as was the quick (and ever-diving) Robinho. Prince-Boateng and the despicable Flamini played much better as well, doing a good job of disrupting Modric’s ability to distribute to VDV through the middle. And the switch to Jankulsovski to deal with Lennon proved quite sound by Allegri. Lennon was fairly well bottled up the entire game.
But in the end, Spurs remained composed. They refused to be baited by the ever-present diving, complaining and play acting of the Italian side. They refused to be baited by the numerous pre-game insults from the San Siro (Allegri saying Spurs had no business in the final 16; Robinho stating seemingly daily that Milan would win; Seedorf describing the despicable Flamini’s horrific tackle of Corluka in the first leg as “made in England”). While Milan has shown themselves to be a rather average (for them) squad from what is clearly an inferior league, very few would, on paper, trade their squad for Spurs. Yet, as usually happens, the better team won.
Now, it is on to the last eight for this dream Champions League campaign and, barring drawing Barca, who could argue that Spurs don’t have at least a decent shot of advancing from there? Hey, we can’t beat Blackpool (does this mean the Seasiders are better than AC Milan?), but we can make it to the last eight of Champions League. And, in a turn of events that brings joy to Yid hearts everywhere, who would have thought in the first half of the first leg against Young Boys that in March it would be Spurs representing North London in the last eight? Unbelievable. COYS!
This is farlieonfootie for March 11.