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Mar 9, 2011

Spurs find their steel

Scoreless draws tend to be greeted with derision by Tottenham supporters who have long demanded their team serve up a feast of fantasy, yet the roar that erupted at the final whistle of this nerve-jangling stalemate must have been heard as far away as Emirates Stadium.

Just 24 hours after local rivals Arsenal failed in their mission to hang onto a first-leg lead against illustrious opponents in the Champions League, Harry Redknapp's men ground out a result that seemed improbable for most of a night as their European credentials were tested to the full in front of fans whose diluted noise levels suggested they feared the worst for long periods.

Yet while they were outplayed for long periods and uncertain in almost everything they tried to execute, the final analysis confirms the name of Tottenham Hotspur will float around in those over-sized brandy bowls when the draw for the quarter-finals of the world's most prestigious club competition is made a couple of weeks from now.

"Are you watching Arsenal?" was the cry from the euphoric Spurs masses at the end of a game that had see them fray more than nerve endings fearing the worst from their fading side, with boss Redknapp admitting his evening of uncomfortable seat-shuffling in front of the gathered media flock was anything but comfortable.

"We came up against a top side tonight and I always suspected this would be a difficult tie for us to deal with mentally," Redknapp said, a little husky in his speech after his touchline trial. "If people expected us to come and smash AC Milan out of sight then they don't know anything about football.

"We were outnumbered in midfield at times and I felt Clarence Seedorf was amazing. They had a diamond in the middle of the park there and we struggled to get near them, but Sandro was fantastic for us and we ended up with a clean sheet.

"You look at that clock, hope it ticks down and in the end we got there and now we can say it was a magnificent night for the supporters, my players and everyone associated with the club. If you can't enjoy a night like this then there is no point in being in the game."

It was clear from the off that this AC Milan side would offer a more vibrant attacking threat than the feeble unit who fluffed their lines so horribly in the first leg at the San Siro three weeks ago and, with their Champions League talisman Gareth Bale only considered fit enough to start on the bench, Tottenham failed to assert the control they commanded for large sections of the first leg.

The home side needed a goal-line clearance from William Gallas to keep their clean sheet intact in the first half, yet the tone had been set as the cacophony of excitement that echoed around this compact old venue at the start of the match had quickly been converted into concerned cries from increasingly agitated supporters.

With Milan displaying crisper passing and more precise movement, the only consolation Tottenham could take from their opening 45 minutes of ball-chasing was the fortunate reality that the one-goal lead they had established so heroically was still intact. However, the confused hum that greeted the whistle to signal the end of the first half confirmed that the tide had apparently already turned against Redknapp's men.

Peter Crouch had the opportunity to change that depressed mood at the start of the first half, but his wayward header was never likely to lift Tottenham, and not even the appearance of Bale from the substitutes' bench could inspire an increasingly fearful Spurs support to rise from their slumber as the second half edged towards its conclusion.

Then, just as the game ticked past the hour mark, Tottenham began to believe the tactical masterplan Redknapp claimed his team were incapable of executing was about to fall into place. As Milan struggled to maintain their rapid tempo of the first half, the entertainers who view attacking as the best form of defence dared edge towards the sort of result Arsenal tried and failed to secure the night before.

With heroic centre-back Michael Dawson and William Gallas rock-solid throughout, it was the superb Sandro who stole the show with a tireless and faultless performance that earned him plaudits aplenty from supporters who rarely toast such disruptive displays.

Tottenham fans have waited a long time to see the best of the Brazilian they signed from Internacional last year, yet Sandro is rapidly emerging as one of the most impressive defensive midfielders of 2011.

Strong in the tackle, oozing with energy and steady on the ball, he has been magnificent in both ties against Milan and deserved to be a winner more than most.

Robinho nearly sent this tie into extra time with an injury-time effort that scooped over Gomes' crossbar, and Redknapp said he had to pinch himself as he was left to ponder Tottenham's next opponents in their European odyssey. "It's a massive achievement for Tottenham to be in the Champions League [quarter-finals] in our first season at this level, but we deserve to be there," he said.

"Who do we want next? In all honesty, you have to say Barcelona are the team to avoid at the moment because they made an excellent Arsenal side look ordinary for long periods in what was one of the best performances I've ever seen, but we have to look forward with optimism after this. We have beaten Inter Milan and AC Milan, so we should have to believe now."

When you consider that Tottenham navigated a route past Italy's finest side without solid contributions from half-fit star men Rafael van der Vaart and Gareth Bale, they have every reason to fancy their chances in the quarter-finals, so long as they avoid the mighty Barcelona.

Spurs' enchanting European journey may yet end in a Wembley final after all, and wouldn't those crestfallen Arsenal fans just hate that.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Sandro. Clarence Seedorf was outstanding at the heart of the battle for AC Milan, but he was matched by Tottenham's own midfield enforcer. Redknapp's decision to play with just one holding midfielder rather than the two he employed in Milan could so easily have backfired on him were it not for the brilliance of Sandro.

TOTTENHAM VERDICT: Harry Redknapp didn't believe his team had a performance like this in them, but this battling display was arguably just as impressive as their trouncing of Inter Milan back in November. Winning this competition will be beyond them, but a quarter-final appearance should be cherished.

AC MILAN VERDICT: Italy's finest restored some of their pride with a gutsy performance and if they had taken one of the chances they carved open in the first half, they could have become the first side to turn over a first-leg defeat on home soil since Ajax beat Panathinaikos back in 1996. However, not for the first time, star names Pato, Ibrahimovic and Robinho failed to provide a finishing touch in a major game.

THE PRESS PACK: It was not just on the pitch that the cultural differences between English and Italian football were in evidence at White Hart Lane, with the clutch of female reporters covering AC Milan offering a far more glamorous appeal than their predominantly well-fed, testosterone-charged, locally-based counterparts.

SIXTH OFFICIAL CONFUSION: The referee's assistants standing behind the goal-line in this tie seemed unwilling to commit to key decisions. Seedorf's handball was not spotted by the assistant behind the goal in the second half, while several corner decisions seemed to inspire confused glances among the numerous officials.

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