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Aug 25, 2010

Spurs can cherish return of the glory game

The fabled White Hart Lane glory nights, absent for two generations, are back; this time complete with the anodyne sound of the Champions League aria. It may have taken Spurs almost half a century to emerge from the shadows of the elite, but Tottenham Hotspur will once again dine at European football's top table. From the outset, the objective was clear: overwhelm and unsettle Young Boys and play at an intensity that matched the raucous atmosphere. Spurs managed all of the above, but not without the heart-stopping moments that the Spurs faithful have become accustomed to over the years. Tottenham's early attacks were as incessant as the rain that fell until dusk on a cold, windswept and generally grotesque night in north London. But the Spurs fans sang boisterously, creating an atmosphere that would have brought a tear to the eye of the late, great Bill Nicholson.

But Young Boys weren't going to pander to Spurs sentiment and the Swiss side initially worked with discipline and an ethic that Spurs and, for that matter the English national side, could learn from.

But this tactic swiftly unravelled and, ultimately, Tottenham's key threat lay with their wide men. Tom Huddlestone's orders were to be available in central midfield to spray passes out to Tottenham's flanks, where the dynamic Aaron Lennon, and the cultured Gareth Bale, lurked.

But while Lennon went missing for extended periods, it was Bale who Young Boys just couldn't get to grips with. His darting runs and knack of ghosting into the box at the perfect moment made him fatal to the Swiss side and, ultimately, saw him assist Tottenham's first three goals and win the penalty for the fourth, allowing Peter Crouch to complete his hat-trick.

Meanwhile, Huddlestone played like a Champions League veteran; patient in possession and disciplined without, the more considered approach required in the competition may well suit the style of the sheriff of Tottenham's midfield more than the fast and furious nature of the Premier League. Huddlestone would seem to possess the ability to dictate the cadence of Tottenham's play with a maturity beyond his 23 years.

But it wasn't made easy for him by Young Boys, especially while they remained attentive to their responsibility of denying the Tottenham No. 6 the time and space in which to operate in the early stages.

Life wasn't plain sailing for Tottenham's No. 32, either, who again looked uneasy against David Degen. Despite all the great nights ahead for Spurs, Harry Redknapp must address the need for a left back good enough for Champions League football. Benoit Assou-Ekotto, it may yet be acknowledged, is not.

Although Tottenham fans will be dreaming of a trip to Barcelona or Madrid when Thursday's draw in Monte Carlo decides their fate, they can now fancy their chances of progressing through to the knockout round. And to banish any fears of being embarrassed on Europe's premier stage, they should look to the example set by Fiorentina last season.

The Italian side, who too finished fourth in their league, progressed to the Champions League group stage via a tense away goals victory over Sporting Lisbon in a play-off, and went on to top their group with five wins out of six. They went out to eventual finalists Bayern Munich after a narrow defeat in the last 16.

And there is no reason why Tottenham cannot enjoy a similar run, especially if this win is enough to convince Brazil striker Luis Fabiano to swap Seville for Spurs. It was once laughable to imagine Spurs in this position. This Tottenham side are not like the flaky sides of the recent, and not so recent, past. Where they once had Chris Armstrong, they now have Jermain Defoe. Where they once had Stuart Nethercott, they now have Ledley King. Where they once had Andy Sinton, they now have Gareth Bale.

They also have Wilson Palacios. One of the chief underperformers in Switzerland, Palacios fed on the decaying Young Boys midfield from the first minute. The Honduran will play bad cop to Tom Huddlestone's good throughout Tottenham's European escapade.

The resounding 6-3 aggregate victory also represents the zenith of Harry Redknapp's career at the age of 63, eclipsing his FA Cup triumph with Portsmouth two years ago.

"It's magnificent to be in Europe," a philosophical Bill Nicholson reflected after Spurs' 4-3 defeat at the hands of Benfica in the 1961-62 European Cup. "For a club like Tottenham Hotspur - if we're not in Europe, we're nothing. We're nothing."

Nicholson's vision may have taken 48 years to come to fruition but they have finally achieved what many Tottenham fans thought they'd never see. Harry and the boys will have a crack at the Champions League. Now, all eyes are on Monte Carlo.

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