It was another European night at White Hart Lane and another triumph for Tottenham Hotspur as they kept a clean sheet against Italian giants AC Milan to advance to the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals. While many expected Spurs to go on after winning the first leg in Milan, 1-0, few would have expected them to do so in a scoreless draw, but they did. Michael Dawson and William Gallas were sensational in the center of the defense, but it was the man who sat right in front of them, Sandro, who had the best match and cemented a place in Tottenham lore.
As a Copa Libertadores winner with Internacional last season, there was no doubt that the 21-year-old Sandro could handle the occasion of the Champions League, but handling the play was an entirely different matter. With all of 13 appearance under his belt for Tottenham since moving from Brazil in August, Sandro isn't the most experienced player in England or Europe and he looked well out of his depth earlier in the season as he struggled to even tread water in the faster and more physical game.
Sandro was undoubtedly well behind the pace of play six months ago, but the last two months have been a revelation for the Brazilian. He's caught up with the speed of the play and showed the type of potential that made Tottenham shell out roughly £10 million for him in the summer. A strong first leg at the San Siro where Sandro was paired with Wilson Palacios was the eye opening performance for the central midfielder, but the second leg in which he put his stamp on a match that looked destined to go against Spurs the longer it went on was his finest hour to date.
In the first leg, Tottenham were the aggressors from the opening whistle. It took a mere minute before the Lilywhites were threatening the Milan goal and they knocked the ball around with ease. Milan tried to play Clarence Seedorf in an advanced midfield role, but with Sandro and Palacios closing down on him he was isolated and the gulf between the deeper Milan players and advanced Milan players grew wider and wider. Tottenham grabbed a hold of the midfield and didn't give it away all match, but the second leg was a different story.
With Kevin Prince-Boateng healthy and in the team, Milan had a much more attacking midfield and a two-man front line of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Pato with Robinho sitting underneath them to make things tougher. With Luka Modric in the Tottenham team for Palacios, Sandro was being asked to do much of the dirty work in the center of the park by himself, an unenviable task against the top team in Serie A that was essentially playing four midfielders in the center versus Spurs' three.
Unlike the first leg, Spurs had no wing play and Milan spent an astonishing 60% of the time on the ball in the first half. It is rare for Tottenham to play deep and defend, but that is what they were content to do. The back line spent the majority of the time dealing with Ibrahimovic and Pato so Sandro was charged with handling Robinho and starving the Milan forwards of service. Astonishingly, that is just what Sandro did. Not to take any credit away from the rest of the team in what was a committed defensive performance, but it was Sandro who took on the bulk of the defensive responsibility and responded.
In one sequence, Boateng received the ball in Spurs' half, on the left and about 10 yards away from the touchline. Sandro met Boateng there and closed him down well, forcing a pass back to the defense, but Milan moved the ball quickly and in a blink of an eye it was coming from down the center with Robinho on the ball 30 yards from goal. Pato was making a dangerous run at the post and Robinho spotted him, but right when he went to make the pass Sandro came flying in with a crucial interception.
To cover the amount of ground that Sandro did is fantastic, but even more incredible when you consider Sandro's size. At 6'2'' Sandro is on the taller side and he's well built and strong to go with the height. He's certainly bigger than your average central midfielder and an imposing physical presence, but he's not the least bit plodding as his range at White Hart Lane on Wednesday proved.
Italian teams have been rightly criticized for their lack of wide play in Europe this season, but no one has questioned their ability on the ball in the center of the park. There, the Italians are simply fantastic and Milan is no exception. Shorter passes in the center are often where Milan find their goals, but whenever the visitors tried that on Wednesday, Sandro was there.
Sandro went in on six tackles in Spurs' own half on Wednesday and he was successful on every one of them. He was also successful on seven pass interceptions in Spurs' own half single-handedly put an end to 13 Milan forays into the Tottenham half. That doesn't even take into account the Milan attacks that were turned around by his large presence in the way of the Milan move.
On a night where Spurs were content to absorb pressure in an unusual defensive mindset, Sandro was the heart of the tactic. The 21-year-old proved his worth as he stepped in to quell any Milan attack time and time again with fantastic range, timing and tackling. On a famous night at White Hart Lane, it was the young Brazilian who shined brightest to give the club the chance at yet another famous night in three weeks time when Sandro will almost certainly be right back in the team to replicate his tremendous performance.