Every year the Champions League group stage is criticised for being dull. That they are merely a procession, a prelude to the main event. Only the most hardened football follower can summon any excitement about Basel vs. CFR Cluj or Rangers vs. Bursaspor unless they actually support the teams involved. Particularly in this country, given the dominance of the Sky Four in Europe, the group stages are regarded as boring. Only twice since 2003/4 have English teams failed to progress. United in 2005/6 and Liverpool last season.
This sense of entitlement to the knock-out stages is in part what has made the group stages so tedious for the English. The feeling is that it is something to get out of the way. Win 1-0 in Russia/Turkey/Greece and its job done. No need to go crazy or be exciting. The brilliantly refreshing aspect of Spurs in the Champions League is that qualification has been far from assured, yet they play totally without fear. The entertainment value of the new boys rising to the challenge is much better that United beating Bursaspor or Chelsea taking on Zilina. Albeit Spurs’ group is the more interesting because they were third rather than first seeds as opposed to the other three teams. But last night seeing Bale and company embarrass the reigning champions was one of the best games the group stage has seen in a long time. Inter were unable to cope with the tempo and power of the Londoners.
Redknapp has had a sharp learning curve in Europe, shifting from his 4-4-2 against Young Boys to something closer to Inter’s 4-2-3-1 but despite altering his tactics has not lost his attacking instincts. Bale, Modric and van der Vaart wrecked havoc against Inter whereas a more cautious manager (Rafa Benitez perhaps) might have been inclined to sit deep and defend against the champions. ‘Arry didn’t and got his rewards. This result did not occur in isolation either. After Gomes was sent off in the San Siro and Spurs were down 3-0 after 14 minutes, they had the character to fight back. They didn’t get anything there but the Bale hat-trick certainly put the wind up Inter and Maicon. Last night they were unable to deal with the Welshman and played with a fear totally absent from Spurs. Anyone would have though that it was Inter who lost the first game. Had Redknapp not had the courage of his convictions to carry on trying to get something, the players might not have had the believe to go and stomp the holders so emphatically.
The seven games Tottenham have played in Europe this season have yielded 25 goals. Does anyone imagine that, had Manchester City snared 4th last season, they would have gotten similar results? Roberto “Three-Holding-Players” Mancini is hardly the type to let a side go and attack with abandon. Aside from the fact that it would break up the traditional four’s monopoly on Champions League football as well as showing money isn’t quite everything, there was a reason to cheer on Spurs last season. Spurs just play that much better football than either Liverpool or Manchester City. Enjoy it for it may not last long.