After twelve matches and nine months, Tottenham Hotspur's campaign in the UEFA Champions League has finally come to a close. It was Spurs' first ever season in Europe's top competition and it was certainly a memorable one. Years from now few of us will remember the tumultuous season Tottenham are having in the league, but there is little doubt in my mind that this Champions League season will be forever ingrained in the mind of every Tottenham supporter.
When Spurs clinched qualification for the Champions League last season with a victory over Manchester City, few of us could have expected a run to the quarterfinals and beating some of the top teams in Europe. Most of us just hoped to make it out of the group stage, but even that seemed like a daunting task. First, of course Tottenham Hotspur had to get to the group stage.
In the qualifying round Tottenham were drawn against BSC Young Boys, the 2009-10 Swiss Super League runners-up. It certainly looked like an easy draw and almost assured the team of advancement to the group stage. Tottenham were seeded for the draw (for reasons that I still don't understand) and Spurs were lucky to avoid some of the more difficult unseeded teams, such as Auxerre, Braga, Sampdoria, and Dynamo Kiev. However, upon arriving in Bern for the first leg Tottenham got their wake-up call. Spurs trailed 3-0 after only 28 minutes and only goals by Sebastien Bassong and Roman Pavlyuchenko gave Spurs any hope of continuing their run in Europe.
In the second leg of the tie at White Hart Lane Tottenham attacked from the off and showed the superiority that they should have should while in Switzerland. The tie was level on aggregate (with Spurs ahead on away goals) after only five minutes thanks to Peter Crouch. From then on it was all Spurs. Crouch had a hattrick and Jermain Defoe added a fourth to give Tottenham a 6-3 win on aggregate.
By beating Young Boys (a phrase that still makes me giggle) Tottenham gained entry to the group stages where they would undoubtedly face more of Europe's elite. Opinions were split heading into the group draw on whether Tottenham would want a group with Real Madrid or Barcelona or if the club would like the easiest path to the knock-out rounds. In the end Tottenham were drawn into what seemed like a very difficult group. Group A included the Champions League holders Inter Milan, Dutch league winners FC Twente, and German side SV Werder Bremen.
Tottenham's group stage campaign kicked off with a trip to Germany to face Werder Bremen. Spurs were 2-0 within the first twenty minutes, but that lead didn't hold and Bremen leveled just after half-time. All together it wasn't a brilliant start, but with Twente drawing Inter by the same 2-2 scoreline everyone in Group A was on level terms.
Two weeks later Tottenham welcomed FC Twente to White Hart Lane for the first home Group Stage game ever at the Lane. In a match that saw 3 penalties and a red card (something that would become a fixture in Spurs Champions League campaign) Tottenham saw off the visitors 4-1. Rafael Van der Vaart missed a dubious penalty in the first half and then got himself sent off in the second half, though he did manage to actually score before that. Roman Pavlyuchenko converted his two penalty tries and Gareth Bale opened his Champions League account for Spurs' fourth. Inter beat Werder Bremen 4-0 so Spurs ended the night in 2nd place in the group on goal differential.
Tottenham then had to wait almost a month for their trip to the San Siro to face Inter Milan. It was the most anticipated match of the season for Spurs and when it arrived it seemed like it was a colossal let down. Javier Zanetti put Inter ahead after only two minutes on a beautiful curling shot. In the eight minute Gomes was sent off for bringing down Jonathan Biabiany in the penalty area. Samuel Eto'o converted the penalty and added another before the half. Those goals were sandwiched around a Dejan Stankovich goal and at the half Spurs trailed 4-0.
Only a miracle could get Spurs back into this game and in the second half that's almost exactly what we saw. Playing with only ten men, Tottenham still looked dangerous on the counterattack. Gareth Bale pulled one back for Spurs in the 52nd minute, but that looked like all Tottenham would get. Then in the 90th minute Bale added two more goals to complete his hattrick. The Welsh winger brutalized Inter's Maicon, regarded by many as the best right back in the world. The defeat was a tough pill to swallow, but given the second half Spurs had some hope for the return fixture at White Hart Lane.
Two short weeks later that tie would prove to be just as magical as Gareth Bale's second half in Milan. The atmosphere at White Hart Lane was electric (and even that probably doesn't do it justice). Goal from Van der Vaart, Crouch, and Pavlyuchenko helped Spurs to a 3-1 victory. However, it was again Bale who provided the inspiration for Tottenham. So badly did the Welshman terrorize the Inter defense that by the end of the night the Spurs faithful were chanting "Taxi for Maicon". It was a stunning performance by all the Spurs players and at the end of the night Tottenham and Inter were deadlocked at the top of the group.
Tottenham's next European game would see Werder Bremen visit the Lane. Tottenham did not suffer any sort of let-down from their previous European performances and were again rampant, beating the Germans 3-0. Spurs dominated offensively and were ahead almost from the off thanks to Younes Kaboul. Luka Modric and Crouch added the final two goals and Spurs had now clinched qualification for the knockout stages. By virtue of Inter's 1-0 victory over Twente Tottenham sat top of the group on goal differential and the hope of winning the group was an inspiration heading into the final match in Enschede against Twente.
Tottenham need to win to be certain of finishing above Inter, Tottenham came out looking to attack. Unfortunately so did Twente and what followed was a very back and forth match with lots of goals. In the end the match ended tied 3-3 thanks to a brace from Jermain Defoe. Inter, however, lost to Werder Bremen, and somehow, improbably, Tottenham had won their group.
The draw for the knockout rounds was nerve-wracking. By virtue of winning their group Spurs would avoid the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid, but some difficult teams still awaited. In the end, Spurs were drawn into a knockout round tie with AC Milan. After an amazing journey to the San Siro early in the season it looked as though Spurs would be returning to the site of Gareth Bale's magical hattrick to face Milan's other side.
I'm not sure what most Tottenham Hotspur fans expected from this fixture, but when Spurs returned to Champions League play in February I doubt anyone expected there to be a defensive battle in Milan. That's exactly what we were treated to though. Sandro and Wilson Palacios got the start in central midfield and the two of them nearly completely nullified AC Milan's attack. The game looked headed for a 0-0 draw until Peter Crouch tapped home a vital away goal after Aaron Lennon unlocked the defense with his pace.
This game was not only memorable for the result though. Most will remember this game for the bizarre incident between Milan's Gennaro Gattuso and Tottenham coach Joe Jordan. The two got into a shoving match on the sideline following Mathieu Flamini's horror tackle on Vedran Corluka and then after the game Gattuso delivered a headbutt to Jordan for an allegedly calling him an "Italian bastard".
Needless to say the return game at White Hart Lane was always going to be a nervy affair. Tottenham were clinging to a one goal lead and nothing anyone had seen from Spurs this season gave them any reason to believe they wouldn't capitulate. What was important was how many more goals Spurs would score. In the end Spurs didn't score, but somehow, neither did Milan. Sandro was again magnificent and William Gallas cleared Robinho's shot off the line early in the match to keep Spurs ahead. With the win on aggregate, Harry Redknapp became the first English manager to reach the last quarterfinals of the Champions League and Spurs had beaten one of the best teams in Europe.
The draw for the next two rounds was not as kind to Tottenham Hotspur as the side was drawn against first Real Madrid and then, should they clear that hurdle, Barcelona. If nothing else, it meant Spurs would get to test their mettle against Europe's best. It was not to be though as Spurs lost the first leg in Madrid 4-0. Peter Crouch was sent off after only 15 minutes, but at that point Spurs were already down a goal. In the return leg Spurs battled hard and with 11-men on the pitch Tottenham looked nearly equal to Madrid at White Hart Lane, but still lost 1-0, due to a gaffe by Gomes. One can only wonder how different the tie against Madrid would have been had Crouch not seen red at the Bernabeu, but the club and its supporters can still be proud of the European adventure as a whole.
What did this season mean for Tottenham Hotspur? For starters it meant a lot of money. Going this deep into the Champions League resulted in a huge influx in cash for the club. Mostly though it meant an increase in prestige. Tottenham firmly staked a claim to their place among Europe's elite with their Champions League performance. Players like Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Aaron Lennon, and Sandro showed that their skills on the worlds biggest stage and didn't disappoint. I don't think anyone expected this from the 2010-11 UEFA Champions League, but it was a welcome surprise.
In the end, Spurs may not return to the promised land of the Champions League next year, but I think we can all agree that this season run was spectacular and will live long in the memory of Tottenham Hotspur fans.