Crouch swoops as Milan lose plot
AC MILAN 0
This was another "glory, glory" night. This was another enchanted evening that showed Harry Redknapp's team at their very best, producing a performance in keeping with the club's great traditions.
Defending with zeal and attacking with pace, Spurs even seized a fine away goal through Peter Crouch. In keeping with the old FA Cup song, Spurs again believe they are on their way to Wembley. Such was the tactical discipline and intelligence in possession that Spurs fans were singing of getting to the Champions League final.
Tougher tests lie ahead, although Milan should be seen off on March 9, particularly if Spurs play like this again. Heurelho Gomes made some athletic saves, Michael Dawson was a colossus at the back, Wilson Palacios was immense in midfield while Crouch played the angular assassin to perfection.
If the stars shone, the supporting cast also delivered, men like Sandro and Benoit Assou-Ekotto. The drama was so relentless, so good they could have staged it at the nearby La Scala complete with pantomime villains in Mathieu Flamini, whose challenge on Vedran Corluka could have ended the Croatian's career, let alone night.
Milan's captain, Gennaro Gattuso, played the madcap pirate, even having the stupidity to pick a fight with Joe Jordan during the game and after. Gattuso nutted Jordan, an offence sure to be investigated by Uefa. Gattuso's earlier foul on Steven Pienaar rules him out of second leg, when Spurs hope to have Gareth Bale back.
In attempting to fill the void left by Bale, Redknapp had surprised many by turning to Pienaar instead of Niko Kranjcar, whose shooting had been such a feature of Spurs' play recently. Yet Pienaar impressed in the first half, displaying all the energy and tactical discipline that suffused his team-mates.
From the opening whistle, Milan had much to think about, notably combating Spurs' varied attack of the deep-lying Rafael van der Vaart and the aerial threat of Crouch. The warm pre-match embrace Van der Vaart received from his Dutch compatriot Clarence Seedorf was soon replaced by the cynical body-checking of Thiago Silva.
Crouch was also worrying Milan, first with a jump towards 'keeper Christian Abbiati that was penalised and then meeting a Vedran Corluka cross. Crouch brought the ball down, eluding the slow-reacting Ignazio Abate, but failed to gain enough purchase to trouble Abbiati. Spurs were in the mood, threatening to score. Abbiati was really struggling to deal with Crouch, his mood not helped by being caught accidentally by one of the Englishman's flailing tentacles. Milan's keeper began gesticulating to the bench, indicating his discomfort.
After 18 minutes, Abbiati had to depart, carried away on a stretcher, his neck in a brace. Marco Amelia ran on to face the Crouch challenge. Spurs were playing within intelligence, treating the ball with care, not risking it, but always looking to get behind the defence in red and black.
Maybe it was the sight of 'Fly Emirates' on the opponents' shirts that also stirred the north Londoners. Under the watchful eye of Fabio Capello, Aaron Lennon gave Luca Antonini constant problems.
Milan took nearly half an hour to get going. They were clearly missing Andrea Pirlo, and were surprisingly wasteful in possession. For a while they failed to find a route through the one-man roadblock that was Palacios, so ensuring that Robinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were isolated for a while.
Ibrahimovic began to impose his talent on proceedings, lifting in a cross that William Gallas read well. Then the Swede fell in the box under a challenge from Sandro, who was clearly targeting the ball. French referee Stephane Lannoy dismissed Ibrahimovic's appeals, angrily gesturing him to get up.
Spurs stayed calm, stayed focused on keeping the ball, working triangles through midfield or releasing Assou-Ekotto, Pienaar and Lennon down the flanks. Spurs' hunger was seen in the way Palacios hunted down Seedorf, eventually ceding a foul but forcing the Dutchman deep. Seedorf's travails ended at the break when he was replaced by Pato.
Palacios was terrific in central midfield, shielding his back four superbly. Milan looked rattled, booed by their fans when Seedorf gave away the ball. Gattuso screamed at referee Lannoy when hustled by Pienaar. Enraged Milan fans rushed from their seats towards the railings, shouting abuse.
Flamini, who had left north London and Arsenal for the greater wages on offer in Lombardy, eventually became exasperated working out how to stifle Van der Vaart. So he took direct action, going in hard and late on the Tottenham No 11, who was fortunate his studs were not planted into the turf when Flamini came calling.
Milan finished the half in more positive fashion. But when Abate managed to sweep in a dangerous cross from the right, there was Gomes, anticipating well, intercepting perfectly.
With Pato arriving, Milan stepped up a gear in the second half. Only Gomes' marvellous reactions denied Mario Yepes a goal, the Brazilian 'keeper somehow clawing away the Colombian's header.
Sadly, a good contest boiled over. Flamini should have seen red, not yellow, for a filthy foul on Corluka, who had to be replaced by Jonathan Woodgate, the injury-plagued centre-half making his first appearance for 16 months. Then the short-fused Gattuso pushed Redknapp's assistant, Joe Jordan, a former Milan striker, in the face.
The pressure was intense. Yepes would have scored but for more brilliance from Gomes. Only Pienaar's timing in the tackle stopped Abate's rampaging run. But then came Lennon, sprinting 50 yards, embarrassing Yepes, before squaring to Crouch, who scored with a measured shot. (© Daily Telegraph, London)