Tottenham Hotspur FC's reputation has grown steadily in the UEFA Champions League this season. Ever since Gareth Bale almost sparked one of the most dramatic comebacks witnessed at San Siro against holders FC Internazionale Milano in October, the north London team have become regarded as one of the competition's most entertaining sides.
Manager Harry Redknapp has been the inspiration behind Tottenham's charge to the quarter-finals, which the Group A winners sealed with a 1-0 aggregate victory over seven-time European champions AC Milan on Wednesday. The Spurs boss is now five games away from joining British predecessors such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Matt Busby (Manchester United FC), Tony Barton (Aston Villa FC), Joe Fagan and Bob Paisley (Liverpool FC) and Brian Clough (Nottingham Forest FC) in lifting European club football's elite trophy.
When the 64-year-old Redknapp took over at White Hart Lane in October 2008, an expensively assembled but underperforming Tottenham squad were bottom of the Premier League with two points from eight games. Yet two and a half years later the former AFC Bournemouth, West Ham United FC, Portsmouth FC and Southampton FC boss has become the first English manager to reach the last eight of the European Champion Clubs' Cup since Terry Venables with FC Barcelona in 1986.
Fourth in the Premier League last term, Tottenham's UEFA Champions League mission was nearly aborted in August. They were 3-0 down to BSC Young Boys after 28 minutes of their play-off, with critics bemoaning Redknapp's bold decision to play 4-4-2 away from home in Europe.
After eventually overcoming the Swiss side, Redknapp – an FA Cup winner with Portsmouth in 2008 – did what all top coaches do: he learned from his mistakes and was not too proud to make changes. Spurs have since used Peter Crouch's aerial prowess in a 4-5-1 formation, with Rafael van der Vaart playing just off the target man. Not only has this enabled Tottenham to pack the centre of midfield with an extra body but it also allows the likes of Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon to attack full-backs with freedom.
Spurs were the 18-goal leading scorers in the group stage and have become known for their attacking flair under Redknapp. Yet while Bale and Lennon have tormented defences, it was defensive resilience that earned them plaudits against Milan. "It's a great achievement to be in the last eight of the Champions League. It's amazing what the players have done," Redknapp enthused. "Barcelona are the team you don't want to play but, whatever comes, it's great to be in the last eight."
If left-back turned winger Bale stole the headlines for his sensational back-to-back displays against Internazionale, Spurs are far from a one-man band. Luka Modrić and Van der Vaart have also been key players in midfield, making massive contributions to the campaign.
The Dutchman is arguably one of the signings of the season. Van der Vaart arrived from Real Madrid CF on transfer-deadline day last summer and has been an instant hit. Besides scoring in the home victories over Inter and FC Twente, he delivered the perfect cross for Crouch to head in against SV Werder Bremen in Germany. Along with fellow newcomer William Gallas, who played for Chelsea FC and Arsenal FC at this level, the 28-year-old brings much-needed European experience.
As Tottenham continue to flourish under Redknapp, the question is whether the Londoner can join his illustrious British forebears in lifting the ultimate prize. Given Spurs' progress so far, perhaps nothing should be ruled out.
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