Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham were given a Champions League wake-up call last night as they were well-and-truly beaten by Rafa Benitez’ Inter Milan side.
Spurs were 4-0 down by half-time and did extremely well to shut-out the opposition in the second-half, with a Gareth Bale hat-trick the only good thing for Tottenham to take away from the San Siro.
Tottenham were without a few key players going into the Group A clash, although even with injured trio Jermain Defoe, Michael Dawson, Ledley King and the suspended Rafael van der Vaart, Spurs would have struggled to stop what is a forceful and dominating Inter side.
Benitez has built on the treble-winning Milan side which was left to him by Jose Mourinho, who joined Real Madrid in the summer. Internazionale may have been without striker Diego Milito but Samuel Eto’o, who has spent a few years out on the wings with both Milan and Barcelona, was more-than-able to fill Milito’s position against Tottenham in a game that was literally enthralling from start to finish.
Inter’s thirty-seven-year-old captain, Javier Zanetti, may not be the quickest of players anymore but, within sixty seconds, he flew past Alan Hutton to get on the end of a crafty Eto’o pass. The Argentinean coolly placed the ball into the top corner to finish off a fine move involving Dejan Stankovic, Wesley Sneijder and the hugely impressive Philippe Coutinho.
The eighteen-year-old Brazilian played out wide for Inter but was frequently found coming inside, causing William Gallas and Sebastian Bassong all sorts of problems in the centre of defence. Redknapp chose to play an attacking line-up to face the current holders of the Champions League, although many better teams would have struggled to contain the compelling football from Inter.
Another through ball, this time from Sneijder, cut through the Tottenham defence once again, leaving Jonathan Biabiany to run through on goal. Spurs goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes could do nothing but foul the young attacker to give Inter a penalty, and a chance to double their lead, within seven minutes.
Gomes was sent off for his troubles, while Eto’o fired the resulting penalty into the top left corner, past the hapless Carlo Cudicini. With star man van de Vaart missing the chance to face his compatriot Sneijder because of a debateable second yellow card against FC Twente in the previous group game, Lula Modric was forced to step into the Dutchman’s shoes and play off striker Peter Crouch, who had a disappointing game. Modric, though, came off to allow Cudicini to come on.
This immediately meant that Tottenham were more defensive but, within two minutes of Eto’o’s goal, Stankovic scored to pile more misery onto Spurs with just fifteen minutes gone. Another fine passing move was finished off cutely by a well placed shot from the Serbian. Again, the defence were too slow to break down the Inter attacks, while Gallas and Bassong were particularly poorly positioned, with the wingers and attacking midfielders running rings around them with great ease.
Crouch had a tough task of playing up front on his own, with very little support in the first half from the likes of Bale and Aaron Lennon. The one, clear-cut opportunity that the England striker did have came just before the half-hour mark, when a fine right-wing cross found Crouch at the back post. The former-Portsmouth and Liverpool striker peeled away from his marker well and rose impressively, only to let the ball hit him rather than direct the ball past Julio Cesar in goal. The ball flew over the bar, and Tottenham had wasted their best, and only, chance of the first half.
The importance of this miss was emphasised further when Eto’o went up the other end and slotted home his fourteenth goal in eleven games this season. The Cameroon striker only managed to score sixteen goals in forty-seven games under Mourinho last season; there are very few, if any, strikers in the world right now who are better than Samuel Eto’o.
Poor defending and shaky goalkeeping meant that, before the break, both Coutinho and right-back Maicon were allowed to shoot within the box, although Cudicini managed to keep the ball out of the net to keep the score at 4-0 going into half-time.
Redknapp will have given his team the hairdryer treatment during the break and, with no physical changes to the eleven, Tottenham got themselves a goal back with forty minutes to go.
Bale has been one of the best players in the Premier League this season and is starting to be recognised as the best left-sided player in the world right now, and the Welshman did his reputation, and his price tag, no harm when he picked the ball up on the halfway line and eased past Maicon before firing past the ‘keeper into the bottom corner. Bale immediately picked the ball up out of the net and raced back to the centre-circle to waste as little time as possible in restarting the game.
With Inter 4-1 up and generally cruising, Liverpool fans must have been having flashbacks to Benitez’ Liverpool reign. With half-an-hour to go many would have expected the injured Christian Chivu to be replaced by a defender to solidify their position. With Marco Materazzi and Ivan Cordoba sat on the bench, though, Benitez made a puzzling tactical move, something which Liverpool fans became oh-so-familiar with during his reign. Striker Goran Pandev was brought on, meaning that Coutinho was forced to play in a more withdrawn midfield role, while Zanetti went to left-back. Even in a more defensive role, though, Coutinho pushed forward and the former-Vasco de Gama midfielder, who received his first senior Brazil cap recently, dragged a shot wide as Inter seemed to regain control.
Redknapp clearly needed more potency up front and, as Crouch trudged off the pitch, former Inter Milan striker Robbie Keane entered the fray. Keane, who played under Benitez at Liverpool, suffered a torrid time in Italy after Marcello Lippi, who signed the Irish forward in 2000, was sacked and his replacement, Marco Tardelli, deemed Keane surplus to requirements.
Keane was on the pitch but could only watch as Bale replicated his first goal with two minutes to go. Another fine run from the former-Southampton youngster ended with Bale firing past Cesar after leaving Zanetti in his wake. A comeback had looked extremely unlikely throughout the second half but Bale made sure that there was to be a tense finale, slotting home brilliantly after Lennon had teed him up just inside the area.
The comeback was not to be, however, and Inter held on to finish the seven-goal thriller as winners.
Inter Milan 4 – 3 Tottenham Hotspur
Zanetti 1 Bale 52, 88, 90
Eto’o (pen) 11, 34
Elsewhere, Manchester United defeated Turkish side Bursaspor 1-0 at Old Trafford. Amid the Wayne Rooney saga winger Nani scored in the seventh minute to send them top of group C, two points ahead of Rangers, who drew 1-1 with Valencia.