Tottenham Hotspur emerged from the cauldron of the San Siro with a crucial 1-0 victory against Serie A leaders AC Milan thanks to an 80th minute goal from Peter Crouch. Scoring an away goal against Italy's meanest defence is no small feat, but to do it while shutting out an attack with names like Alexandre Pato, Robinho, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic is even more impressive. Leading on aggregate with that vital away goal, Spurs stand in very good stead ahead of the return fixture at White Heart Lane in three weeks.
The win was no more than they deserved. Tottenham dominated the first half, never allowing Milan to settle, and if they hadn't scored in the second a first minute handball by Alessandro Nesta would have rightfully been a key talking point in the match. It was clear that Aaron Lennon and Crouch would be a combination that would cause the home side some serious problems. Milan were totally incapable of dealing with Lennon's pace and trickery down the right, and the sheer weight of crosses sent in led to goalkeeper Christian Abiatti's departure in the 18th minute after several aerial collisions with Tottenham players.
In the second half, Milan started to grind Spurs down by monopolising possession and putting in several brutal challenges on the visitors - Mathieu Flamini should have been sent off for a two-footed tackle that saw right back Vedran Corluka stretchered off the field, and captain Gennaro Gattuso managed to get away with about ten bookable offences (including a shove on Joe Jordan, a 59 year-old coach) before he was finally shown a card. Gattuso's booking means that the midfielder is suspended for the return leg in London, which led to a rather unseemly hissy-fit at referee Stephane Lannoy.
For all that they were childish, the captain's antics seemed to fire up the rest of the team and with Pato on to start the second half they looked a much more dangerous side. Bizarrely, they got their best chances from set plays, Mario Yepes in particular forcing two fine saves from Huerelhio Gomes, who was more or less a spectator in the first half of the match. However, committing too many players forward in a desperate search for a goal is always a recipe for danger, especially when playing against someone with the speed of Aaron Lennon, and the winger blitzed up the length of the field and skipped past Yepes before setting up Crouch with the easiest of goals in the 80th minute.
The home side were uncowed by the Tottenham goal and came forward again in numbers. It looked for all the world as though they'd equalised in spectacular fashion in the fourth and final minute of injury time after Ibrahimovic acrobatically turned in a cross via the an overhead kick, but the equaliser was disallowed thanks to him first shoving defender Michael Dawson to the ground before turning the ball in. It was the last meaningful kick of the game, and Spurs emerged with a remarkable 1-0 victory, one which gives them a major edge going into the second leg of the tie on March 6th. They did it without Gareth Bale and (mostly) Luka Modric as well, both of whom should be fully fit for the return leg. If Milan couldn't deal with the pace of Lennon on the right, the prospect of facing Bale's blistering speed on the left flank must be a major worry for coach Massimiliano Allegri as he attempts to salvage his European campaign.
The final whistle wasn't the end of the action, unfortunately. Gattuso, who now faces a one-game suspension for picking up a yellow card, went over to shake hands with Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp, then immediately walked up to Jordan, the coach he'd shoved earlier. Jordan might have expected an apology for the earlier altercation, but Milan's captain wasn't in the mood for contrition. Instead, appallingly, he was in a headbutting sort of mood.
Jordan wasn't hit particularly hard and managed to stay on his feet, but a bit of a fracas erupted around the Spurs bench and the disgraceful Milan captain. While the contretemps was eventually calmed down without further violence with the assistance of Rafael van der Vaart, the cameras had managed to catch Gattuso red-handed - and you have to wonder how exactly the disciplinary committees will react to a player headbutting an old man. Gattuso does have a reputation for anger problems, and the were clearly out of control today.
While Milan made their home defeat even uglier, Tottenham's players were basking in the completely deserved adulation of their fans. It was a job very well done for Lennon, Crouch, and company, and you'd expect that they can't wait for a chance to finish off their illustrious opposition at White Hart Lane in a few weeks.