Gareth Bale hat-trick salvages Spurs’ Champions League pride
Inter Milan 4
Tottenham Hotspur 3
A MAGNIFICENT second-half hat-trick from Gareth Bale salvaged Tottenham’s pride on a night when Spurs’ strengths and weaknesses were equally highlighted at the San Siro.
Spurs looked set for one of their heaviest defeats in recent history as Champions League holders Inter Milan took a 4-0 lead into half-time – and against 10 men after Heurelho Gomes’ early dismissal in the eighth minute.
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However, Bale led the charge after the interval as Harry Redknapp’s side defied their numerical disadvantage to depart Milan with a narrow 4-3 defeat.
Having raced 70 yards to score a stunning solo effort in the 52nd minute, Bale added two late goals to leave Rafael Benitez’s Italians hanging onto their win in the final seconds.
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It was a stunning comeback – and not for the first time this season, as Spurs showed a spirit and mental strength which has become a hallmark of their campaign.
However, the Lilywhites’ latest resurgence also papered over serious cracks which still need to be addressed.
After the game, Bale insisted that Spurs would learn from the dire opening exchanges, which left Inter 3-0 up inside 14 minutes, and expressed his hope that the Lilywhites would never have a start like that again.
“It just wasn’t a lively start from us and we paid for it,” he said. “The next time we will learn from those mistakes and go into the game differently.”
The Welshman had a night to remember in Milan but clearly has a short memory, because this was not a one-off.
Spurs’ Champions League adventure famously began in a very similar style in August, as they found themselves 3-0 down after 28 minutes against Young Boys of Bern in Switzerland.
Redknapp called the resulting 3-2 loss back in August a “great defeat”, and Spurs’ manager, players and fans will probably have a similar reaction to their 4-3 loss in Italy last night.
Tottenham have also shown their never-say-die spirit to come from behind to beat Wolves, Aston Villa and Fulham recently – but that is only half of the story.
Spurs’ comebacks have been necessitated because they have conceded first in six of their last seven games, shipped 21 goals in 14 games in total (an average of 1.5 per game) and failed to keep a clean sheet since the opening-day goalless draw against Manchester City at the Lane.
That is largely because the Lilywhites have had 10 different partnerships at centre-back so far this campaign, and that lack of stability was brutally exposed last night as the back line was breached four times in the opening 35 minutes.
It took just 68 seconds for Inter to take the lead as Javier Zanetti finished a snappy passing move from the inside left channel.
If that was bad for Spurs worse quickly followed as an inch-perfect ball scythed through an enormous gap between Sebastien Bassong and Benoit Assou-Ekotto, who had lost sight of the unrushing Jonathan BiaBiany.
Gomes flew from his goal but only succeeded in bringing the Inter winger down, seeing a penalty given and a red card brandished in his face.
Luka Modric was forced to depart as Carlo Cudicini entered the fray, but Spurs’ No2 keeper – who was born in Milan - was powerless to stop Samuel Eto’o’s spot-kick.
There was no respite and the third goal was a shambles as Tom Huddlestone allowed the ball to roll between his legs on the edge of the penalty area and Bassong failed to react as Dejan Stankovic fired low past a motionless Cudicini.
Peter Crouch could have narrowed the rapidly widening gap but headed over from six yards, and after 35 minutes it was 4-0 as Eto’o sprung a clumsy offside trap, got goal-side of William Gallas and poked the ball through Cudicini, who got a big touch but saw the ball drop into the net.
Inter had mustered 15 shots in the first half and Spurs just one, but it was a different story in the second half as Bale lit up an otherwise dark night for Tottenham with three moments of brilliance.
Seven minutes after the restart the 21-year-old gathered the ball on the left and burst inbetween two men before outpacing Zanetti and firing across Julio Cesar.
There was little action to note for most of the second period as Inter sat contentedly on their lead and Redknapp sounded the retreat, replacing Crouch with Robbie Keane and Huddlestone with Wilson Palacios with Saturday’s clash with Everton in mind.
However, in the 89th minute Bale latched onto Jermaine Jenas’ pass and scored an almost identical goal to his majestic first, ignoring Keane to pass Ivan Cordoba on the outside and fire across Cesar.
Less than 60 seconds later it was 4-3 as Aaron Lennon raced in from the right flank and drew the defence before teeing up Bale, who lashed the ball into the bottom right corner for the third time. A miracle suddenly seemed possible but there was not enough time to forge another effort on goal.
There is much to ponder before Tottenham host the holders at the Lane, and Redknapp must get his defence in order quickly.
However, at the halfway point in the group stages, Spurs are very much in contention for a place in the knockouts, with two of their remaining three games at home.
And, with 25 goals being scored in Tottenham’s five European games so far, there is plenty to look forward to. Spurs’ long-awaited Champions League debut is certainly living up to expectations.