For the second game in a row – sod the neutral. But under very different circumstances.
It was not a good start to the evening. I arrived at the British Queen near WHL station early to find it shut with a note taped to the window saying that it had been repossessed by Admiral Taverns. Naughty Admiral, ruining everyone’s fun.
Instead myself and Whatwouldjimbodo? were forced to celebrate his birthday with a couple of cans of cheap costcutter lager (oh ok, red stripe) by a bin in a dark Tottenham side street to calm our nerves. It’s where he always saw himself at 37. The pre-match consensus seemed to be that it would be all about the first goal. Obvious, but true. Or completely false, as it turned out.
European nights at White Hart Lane have long been woven into the fabric of our club. Even if this year turns out to be just a blip, it’s great to hark back to the times in the 60s, 70s and 80s when our modern history was effectively written. The atmosphere was tense and crackling even before kick off. As the teams came out, the size of the occasion hit me. It was the kits that did it. The all-white contrasted with the red and black of one of the truly iconic strips in world football. In our no longer fit for purpose, but still very special, stadium. It just looked magnificent. It looked big-time.
But whilst there was a nod to history there was a pleasing lack of respect for the Champions League ‘anthem’, drowned out by some old Tottenham staple or other. Everything felt right to me. And then the game started.
What a strange match this was. It’s not that nothing happened. It’s just that for once this was a game more about tactics, less about incidents. Not very Tottenham.
It was noticeable that Benoit Assou-Ekotto That’s-Who was sitting back when normally he would have been on the overlap. Harder to tell with Corluka, of course. I think Harry basically got it right. This was not gung-ho, and it didn’t need to be. But the full backs sitting back disrupted our flow. The little triangles to get out of tight spaces in the centre that usually end up out wide – they just weren’t happening as often. Whether through tactical necessity or simply not being quite on our game, our passing was not as crisp as usual.
For once Modric of the match was simply Modric. By his own exalted standards he had a poor game but it didn’t matter so much, for lo, alongside him a new star is born. Sandro looks like the real deal. He’s got used to the pace of his new environment and is now able to impose himself on it. I mean this as a compliment when I say that I really did notice Sandro tonight. How could you not? He was fantastic. He was everywhere. It’s easy to say he’ll replace Wilson but it’s probably Huddlestone who now faces a real challenge to prove he is part of our strongest eleven.
In a game with little incident, you can always depend upon Heurelho to come up with something. One rush of blood to the head in which he came off his line ended up with Sandro getting a head and then Gallas a goal-line boot on to a Robinho(?) shot. I had already mentally accepted conceding from open play if it meant avoiding a red card and penalty, so this was a real let-off. That, and one ridiculous schoolboy throw out straight into red and black pressure aside, it was good Gomes tonight.
At half time I was adamant – Bale must come on. Fear of Bale is like a player in himself, but really, you have to have Bale on the pitch for Fear of Bale to truly do his stuff. Which is unfortunate, as otherwise we could try to flog Bale for £50m and just play Fear of Bale instead.
But in fact, nothing very much changed. The game only had one gear. They applied pressure, we took everything they had. The only difference was that our passing was slightly crisper in the second half, but not by much. Even when Bale finally came on things just stayed the same. Apart from one late shot deflected over, and one that the Milan fans thought was in when it hit the side netting (is there a more enjoyable moment of schadenfreude in football than that?), it was always nervy but never nail bitingly so. Their attacking players were disappointing – Robinho, Ibrahimovic, the artist formerly known as Kevin Prince Boateng – they all had plenty of the ball and moved it smoothly, but to no real effect.
It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective. Our best players were our central defenders and our defensive midfielder. That sums up the game – they huffed and they puffed but our house was made of brick. It’s an odd thing to celebrate a nil nil. Even on the final whistle, you don’t quite get the release that a bulging net provides. But it can’t all be 4-3 thrillers. This was a war effort. It has a glory glory all of its own.