Tottenham Hotspur’s memorable 1-0 victory over AC Milan in the San Siro and Schalke’s 1-1 draw away to Valencia kicked off the Champions League Round of 16 with a bang on Tuesday evening writes Ger McCarthy.
Round of 16, First leg
Stadio Giuseppe Meazza
AC Milan 0 Tottenham Hotspur 1
A never to be forgotten night for Tottenham Hotspur and Harry Redknapp as the North London side recorded a fully merited 1-0 win away to AC Milan in the San Siro. A breakaway Peter Crouch goal sealed a priceless 1-0 away victory heading into the second leg at White Hart Lane while the after match shenanigans of Genaro Gattuso and Joe Jordan will go down in European football folklore.
Despite loud appeals for a penalty waved away in the second minute Spurs were bright and inventive for much of the opening quarter with Peter Crouch the focus of the Premier League side’s attacks. Despite enjoying the lion’s share of possession Tottenham failed to sufficiently trouble Abbiati in the Milan goal and missed the creative nous of Modric despite the best efforts of Palacios and Sandro. Having to replace the concussed Abbiati with replacement stopper Amelia cost the hosts a substitute early on but the new goalkeeper acquitted himself well with some brave punches away.
The ageless Nesta proved his worth time and again in the Italians back four on a slippy night and difficult underfoot conditions. The home side’s over elaboration in the final third served only to frustrate an already subdued home support. An early snap-shot from Ibrahimovic which forced Gomes to palm clear was the only moment of panic in the Spurs penalty box as the visitors otherwise comfortably dealt with Milan’s attacking forays.
If Van der Vaart and Piennar’s industry shone in a dull first half then an even more encouraging feature of Spurs performance was the work rate and discipline of full backs Corluka and Assou-Ekotto. The two defenders repeatedly forced Milan’s wide attackers to come in-field and with the Palacios-Sandro axis cleaning up in front of Dawson and Gallas the Italians attacks floundered. AC Milan stepped up a gear as the opening half drew to a close with Flamini’s hard running briefly rousing the San Siro to life but the work rate of the former Arsenal midfielder was not matched by his teammates apart from perhaps Gattuso.
Van der Vaart underlined his magnificent ability with a searing drive which was tipped away for a corner in the dying embers of the first 45 minutes. That effort was Spurs’ only genuine shot to trouble the Milan rearguard in an otherwise excellent first half display. It may not have been the free-flowing encounter many had predicted but the drenched travelling Spurs fans didn’t care one iota as Harry Redknapp’s side went in 0-0 at the break following a determined rather than spectacular opening 45 minutes.
Pato’s introduction for the second period re-energised a previously quiet San Siro and finally sparked Allegri’s side into life. Van der Vaart going close at one end was quickly followed by a terrific stop from Gomes to deny a goalbound Yepes header within a minute.
Things turned nasty for a time with Flamini’s horror challenge taking out Corluka who had to be replaced by Woodgate. Tensions continued to boil over and Spurs were guilty of losing concentration so Gomes had to come to his side’s rescue once again with a tremendous stop to deny Yepes. If Flammini’s challenge warranted more than the yellow card displayed then Palacios was equally as lucky not to be dismissed for a horrible lunge on Gattuso. The fiery Italian took time out to get involved with Spurs Coach Joe Jordan on the sideline and in truth was mighty fortunate to stay on the pitch.
Tottenham replaced Van der Vaart with Modric but an inability to retain possession handed the lion’s share of the ball to AC Milan. The Premier League side defended manfully but Milan increased the pressure as the game inched towards its conclusion helped by the visitors’ insistence on going long to Crouch rather than playing through the middle.
As Milan grew desperate Spurs bided their time and hit the Italians on the counter-attack with 10 minutes remaining for the only goal of the tie. The tireless Sandro fed Modric who in turn released Lennon and the English international skipped away from the Milan back four before squaring for Peter Crouch who made no mistake from 12 yards out. Cue scenes of wild celebration from the Tottenham bench and travelling supporters.
Even though Ibrahimovic had the ball in the net deep into injury time the Swede’s effort was correctly ruled out for a push on the excellent Dawson. Spurs held on for a famous win and not even the sad sight of Gattuso head-butting Joe Jordan long after the final whistle could detract from a wonderful night for the Premier League outfit.
Make no mistake about it Tottenham Hotspur were deserving winners in the San Siro but the AC Milan team they defeated are a pale shadow of the late 80’s and early 90’s teams that dominated European football. Harry Redknapp’s side can only beat what is in front of them however and an electric night and second-leg beckons at White hart Lane where Milan will need to score more than once and keep a clean sheet to progress.
With Gareth Bale set to return Spurs will have their most potent attacking weapon back and roared on by their home supporters will also never have a better chance of making the Champions League quarter finals.
Round of 16, First leg
Estadi de Mestalla, Valencia
Valencia 1 FC Schalke 04 1
Former Real Madrid hero Raul grabbed all the headlines after netting Bundesliga outfit Schalke’s equaliser in a 1-1 draw away to Valencia at the Mestalla. The German side have the upper hand heading into the second leg of this Round of 16 clash in Gelsenkerchin with a priceless away goal thanks to the Spanish striker.
The visitors began well but Klaas-Jan Huntelaar wasted glorious opportunity to break the deadlock after 10 minutes when the Dutch international completely miss-kicked the ball with only goalkeeper Vincente Guaita to beat. That near miss sparked Valencia into life and the home side hit the front just after the quarter hour with a well worked goal.
Aduriz released Jérémy Mathieu with a perfectly timed pass and the French international raced clear before executing a perfect cross forValencia’s top Champions League scorer Roberto Soldado to guide a header into the net. Soldado’s sixth goal of the current Champions League campaign marks the striker down as player to watch for the remainder of the season and beyond.
Soldado continued his fine individual performance by going within inches of doubling his side’s lead before the interval when the Valencia striker just failed to direct Miguel’s centre into the net. The second half was a much more open affair with both sides wasting good chances before Raul took centre stage.
The former Spanish international striker brought parity to the score line after he connected with a pin-point Manuel Jurado cross to steer the ball first time into the net and silence the previously raucous Mestalla crowd. Schalke went closest to grabbing a winner during a frenetic finish to the game but an away draw plus a goal scored makes the Germans favourites to progress ahead of their home leg on March 8th.
The last word on a terrific night for Felix Magath’s impressive German side goes to the irreplaceable Raul. The Spanish striker led the line superbly from start to finish and Schalke fully deserved their draw even though they finished with 10 men following the dismissal of Schmitz in injury time.
Valencia will need to improve dramatically if they are to progress to the quarter finals but as of now Schalke look the favourites to go through with a home second leg to come.