As introductions to the Champions League go, one night in Milan eight years ago was a hell of a shock for Tottenham Hotspur, writes
It was also the night that launched Gareth Bale into the consciousness of world football, the Welshman scoring a hat-trick to almost — almost — rescue a point for Spurs.
And when the reigning European champions visited White Hart Lane to face Tottenham a fortnight later, Bale was to give their Brazilian right-back such a torrid time that he has since been known mockingly as ‘Taxi-For’ Maicon.
But rewind to Tottenham’s first Champions League visit to the Giuseppe Meazza stadium, or San Siro as it more commonly known, where Mauricio Pochettino’s men will step out tonight hoping to bounce back after defeats by Watford and Liverpool.
Back then, Harry Redknapp was in charge of a Tottenham team that had reached the Champions League for the first time by finishing fourth in the Premier League and beating Young Boys of Berne in the qualifying round.
Their first two games in the full competition were inauspicious; a 2-2 draw at Werder Bremen, after Spurs had let slip a two-goal lead, and a comfortable 4-1 home win over Twente Enschede, which was marred only by a red card for Rafael Van der Vaart.
It meant Tottenham’s new signing was suspended for the trip to Inter, who were reigning champions having won the competition five months earlier under the command of Jose Mourinho.
Rafa Benitez had replaced Mourinho when the Portuguese left for Real Madrid, and the former Liverpool manager had instilled a more attacking instinct in Inter, who had plenty of quality going forward. Samuel Eto’o and Wesley Sneijder were backed up by an 18-year-old boy wonder from Brazil named Philippe Coutinho in midfield. Whatever happened to him?
In Luka Modric, Spurs had their own world-class midfielder in the making, but the Croatian did not get much of a chance to show his skills in the San Siro on that night in October, as Redknapp’s men got off to the worst possible start.
Javier Zanetti, Pochettino’s former Argentina teammate, put Inter ahead in the third minute before disaster for Spurs struck five minutes later. Sneijder played in Jonathan Biabiany, prompting Heurelho Gomes to fly off his goal-line and bring down the winger, earning an immediate red card. Modric was sacrificed as Redknapp sent on substitute goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini, who could not stop Eto’o from making it 2-0 from the penalty spot.
The misery piled up for 10-man Spurs as Dejan Stankovic made it 3-0 inside 15 minutes, and when Eto’o scored his second and Inter’s fourth before half-time, things were looking bleak for Spurs.
Cometh the hour, however, and cometh the man. Up to that point, Bale was a gangly 21-year-old left-back who had given few clues about the free-scoring beast he would become. His first, injury-hit season at Spurs saw him score three goals, and in his second season he failed to hit the net at all in 33 games.
It was the same story the following season until Easter, when a run of three goals in six games helped Tottenham edge out Manchester City for the Champions League places, but he was still far from prolific.
That was about to change dramatically. Three goals in his first 12 games of the season showed more promise, but it was what happened after half-time at the San Siro that took him on to the world stage.
His first goal came seven minutes into the second half as he raced 50 yards down the left wing, brushing Zanetti aside, before firing an angled shot in at the far post past Julio Cesar, Inter’s Brazilian keeper. Both teams had chances in the following half-hour or so, but with stoppage-time approaching, he did it again, racing through to fire low into the far corner.
Even at 4-2 there was no danger of an upset. But when Aaron Lennon wriggled through the Inter defence to set up Bale for another angled shot into Cesar’s left-hand corner, the atmosphere in the stadium changed. Inter’s fans, and the Italian contingent up in the press box, sensed something special was happening, and you could almost smell the fear from their players.
Imagine being 4-0 up against 10 men and not winning! If the game had gone on for another five minutes, it is possible that Bale could have scored again to snatch the most unlikely of draws, so far was he ‘in the zone’.
Certainly the Italians looked shell-shocked at the final whistle, a palpable air of relief rising from the pitch and the stands as Inter hung on for a 4-3 victory.
But Bale had set down a marker for what was to come, and more importantly set fear and uncertainty into the Inter players.
He made something of a stir in the Italian media, although few reporters — apart from yours truly — stopped him to talk as he walked through the mixed zone after the match.
Bale looked slightly stunned, almost embarrassed, but agreed that he would probably have scored more if the game had gone on longer.
He did not have long to wait. When the European Champions visited White Hart Lane two weeks later, they were simply blown away by a gale named Bale. The Welshman grew in stature as the game went on, as if to prove that he truly belonged on the world stage. After Van der Vaart gave Spurs an early lead, Bale took over, running Inter’s defenders — and Maicon in particular — ragged. He set up one chance that Peter Crouch missed, but then provided another that the big striker scored. And after Eto’o gave the visitors a slim chance with a late goal, Bale finished them off with another devastating run and cross for Roman Pavlyuchenko to make it 3-1.
White Hart Lane was rocking as Tottenham’s supporters proclaimed their new hero, and the headlines and footage that went round the world made it inevitable that Bale was destined for the very top.
It was almost three years later that he finally followed Modric to Madrid, and has not looked back. But he did admit in an interview in 2013 that one night in Milan had changed everything for him.
Yes, that was the night that everyone got to know me as a player, and it changed my career. It was a great night and it gave me the confidence to go on to bigger and better things.
How Tottenham could do with him now.