Don’t Bale on Spurs

In the first of a new series of blogs on the Champions League, James Dixon takes a look at Tottenham’s chances against AC Milan.

Tottenham’s debut season in the Champions League must have been everything the White Hart Lane faithful have wished it could be. Despite the teams best efforts to fail at the qualifying stage against Young Boys in Swtizerland it has been an enjoyable odyssey for Spurs fans in Europe’s Premier Competition for the first time since Bill Nicholson was manager.

Twente, Werder Bremen and reigning champions Inter Milan were all hammered at home, as Tottenham progressed to the knock-out stages as group winners and joint top goalscorers.

Since the second group stage was abolished for the 2003-04 season 37 group winners have progressed to the quarter-finals opposed to 19 group runners-up, which should be a good omen for Tottenham.

AC Milan was on paper the toughest possible draw for Harry Redknapp’s men, who’s defensive fragility on their travels (12 goals conceded in 4 games) remains a serious cause for concern. While the Milanese are top of Serie A and historically amongst the savviest of Champions League operators, they have not won a knock-out game since defeating Liverpool in 2007 Final, and have twice in the past three seasons been defeated by English clubs at this stage of the competition (Arsenal 07/08 & Manchester United 09/10).

All Italian sides have struggled against English sides in the knock-out stages since that Athens Final. In the past three seasons there have been eight Anglo-Italian pairings and seven times the Premier League has triumphed against Serie A, only Inter’s 3-1 aggregate win against Chelsea last season en route to winning the competition prevents a clean sweep of recent seasons.

The recent superiority of England has distorted what was hitherto a close head-to-head record between the two footballing powers. In the Champions League era English clubs have won 33 matches, the Italians 22 and 18 matches have been drawn.

All bookmakers have Milan as slight favourites to qualify for the next round and Tottenham’s Champions League inexperience has been highlighted as a reason why the Rossoneri should be considered favourites, but the last three English debutants in the Champions League got at least to the quarter final stages. Chelsea (99/00), Liverpool (01/02) and Leeds memorably made the semi finals in 2000-01.

Does the absence of CL football mean that when it arrives the club has more desire for success?

The atmosphere at Stamford Bridge, Elland Road and Anfield in their first campaign was electric, anyone who doubts the crowd can be worth a goal should see herehere andhere.

Prior to this the experience of English debutants in their first Group Stage was pretty horrendous with Manchester United (94/95), Blackburn Rovers (95/96), Newcastle United (97/98) and Arsenal (98/99) all failing to qualify with the exception of Newcastle, all being woeful doing so.

It was a different league in the 90s, there were far fewer star players earning their crust in England, with Serie A and La Liga above the Premier League in prestige. The high profile imports tended to be superstars assumed to be nearing the ends of their careers. Importantly, Manchester United had not yet turned their domestic dominance into continental success – and in doing so laid down a blue print for English sides to follow in Europe.

The absence of Gareth Bale from the first leg at the San Siro on Tuesday is of course a loss for Spurs, but his game relies on space to run into. Phil Neville and Rafael Da Silva have shown sides how to counter Bale’s threat, and in Niko Kranjcar they have an in form replacement.

The threat of Rafael Van Der Vaart and Luka Modric has yet to be shown how to be effectively countered when working in tandem. Modric is a fitness doubt, and Redknapp will be making a last minute call on his participation. The Wheeler-Dealer may roll the dice on Modric’s fitness thinking the risk/reward ratio is heavily tilted in his favour when his other options are Steven Pienaar and Sandro.

Though ‘Arry would do well to remember that the tie is decided in 180 minutes. If all Milan have to do is come to White Hart Lane and obdurately hold on they’d relish that challenge and the space won’t be there for Bale, Modric and VDV to exploit. Personally, I’d play Palacios alongside Sandro to offer Gallas and Dawson more protection, and entrust Kranjcar, Lennon, VDV and Crouch to get the away goal.

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