Tottenham Hotspur will face AC Milan for the first leg of the UEFA Champions League Last-16 round on Tuesday.
The return of the Champions League has football lovers all over the world licking their lips in anticipation of a list of classic encounters. The prospect of Spurs repeating what they did in their previous visit to the San Siro against reigning champions Internazionale tops that list. On that occasion, the London side found themselves 4-0 down at half-time, with the tie all but over. However, a second-half surge, led by the incredible Gareth Bale, saw the Londoners cut the deficit to 4-3 and had there been a few more minutes remaining, they might have completed that remarkable comeback.
When Spurs managed a fourth place finish in the previous Premier League season, thereby gaining a Champions League place, many wondered whether they could qualify for the group stages, let alone qualify from it. However, under the stewardship of Harry Redknapp, they have taken on an attractive attacking style of play which has troubled the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal domestically, as well as European powers such as Inter and Werder Bremen.
The acquisition of Van der Vart has proved immense, but it is 21-year-old Welshman Gareth Bale who has impressed most. His power and burst of pace down the left wing troubled Brazilian international Maicon to no end against Inter, and it has been instrumental in gaining the fourth position Spurs currently occupies in the Premiership.
They travel to Milan on the back of 2-1 comeback win at Sunderland on Saturday, despite missing instrumental figures such as Bale, Van der Vart and Luka Modric. What will trouble Spurs' supporters is the news that Bale will not play any part in the tie after failing to recover from a back injury. Though he will be sorely missed, they are boosted with the news that all of Luka Modric, Van der Vart and Peter Crouch have sufficiently recovered from their respective injuries and will play some part against Milan.
What is surprising is that manager Harry Redknapp has vowed to stick with his all-out attacking strategy, and though it has proved effective so far, it will leave them open at the back and that is a risky strategy against an experienced Milan side.
AC Milan has overcome their initial tough weeks under new manager Massimiliano Allegri and have rose to the top of the Serie A table. Allegri has helped new signings Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho find their feet again, after they struggled at Barcelona and Manchester City respectively, and he has turned Milan into a solid unit once again.
Ibrahimovic, who looked like his best days were past him during his time with Spanish champions Barcelona, has been particularly impressive, scoring 13 goals in 23 league games this season, with 10 assists. His partnership with Robinho, who has scored 9 in 22 games, has flowered well for the Italian leaders and has softened the departure of Ronaldinho. Such has been their association on the pitch that the World Soccer magazine this month called Ibrahimovic and Robinho a strike partnership of terrifying possibility.
Allegri himself was in such admiration of Ibrahimovic, who has overcome criticism to win over the Milan fans, that he held him on level pegging with Lionel Messi. He said, There is no better player in the world than Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Alongside Messi, he is the absolute strongest. He has character, determination and this year he has been decisive on many occasions.
Milan qualified for the knock-out stages after placing second on Group G, behind Spanish giants Real Madrid. Before the turn of the year, the Italian side looked rocky and needed 2-0 win over Auxerre on their last group game to ensure qualification.
However, things have improved drastically since then and Milan come to the game on the back of a 4-0 demolition-job of Parma on Saturday, with Robinho scoring twice after coming off the bench. After the game, the Brazilian said, Bring on Tottenham. We want to win everything. If we carry on doing well then we can win this Scudetto.
Though Spurs are bogged down by the injury to Bale, Milan have injury problems of their own. The seven-time European champions will be without their veteran conjurer in midfield Andrea Pirlo as well as captain Massimo Ambrosini and former Tottenham man Kevin-Prince Boateng.
Stats and Facts -
Spurs forward Peter Crouch has scored three goals from just five shots on target in the Champions League this season. Milan are the holders of the worst disciplinary record in the competition, picking up 17 yellow cards.
Being the first of a two-legged encounter, the tie won't pan out as openly as it will in the second-leg. However, Spurs will be eager to bag an away goal at the least, while Milan will look to make full use of Robinho and Ibrahimvovic. Ibrahimovic's battle against Spurs' center-back Dawson could prove especially interesting. All in all, it looks like Milan will win 2-1 on the night, on the back of their home advantage. The away goal should make for a very interesting second-leg at London.