Most of the talk centering around this past week's Champions League match between AC Milan and Tottenham has been about the disgraceful lack of sportsmanship shown by Milan midfielders Matthieu Flamini and Gennaro Gattuso. It's unfortunate because the real story of the game should have been how an undermanned underdog went to the intimidating San Siro stadium and outperformed the storied team currently sitting atop Serie A.
With the game still scoreless ten minutes into the second half, Flamini delivered a two-footed tackle against Spurs rightback Vedran Ćorluka, who had to be carried off on a stretcher and will miss the next month with a sprained ankle. Immediately after the dirty play, Flamini compounded his offense by gesturing triumphantly to incite the home crowd and then yelling for the injured player to get off the field. Flamini was given a yellow card but remains eligible for his team's trip to play Tottenham at White Hart Lane on March 9.
Unlike Flamini's classless act, Gattuso's was not an isolated play but an eruption from a game-long performance that might have made many a fan wonder if the hirsute midfielder had lost his mind. Clearly frustrated by his battles with Spurs striker Peter Crouch and chatter from the Spurs sideline, Gattuso went over to the sidelines and slapped assistant coach Joe Jordan. Moments after the game ended 1-0 in Tottenham's favor, Gattuso proceeded to head-butt the 59-year-old Jordan.
The referee in charge that night, Stephane Lannoy from France, had not exactly distinguished himself during the 2010 World Cup, and he did nothing to enhance his resume on this night in the Champions League. He did not even book Gattuso for either incident, much less issue a red card. AC Milan's captian did receive a yellow card for a sliding tackle of Crouch -- his second yellow in two CL games, rendering him ineligible for his team's trip to face Tottenham at White Hart Lane on March 9 -- and faces further disciplinary action for assaulting Jordan. But it appears now that Gattuso will come out of his hearing with UEFA president Michel Platini on Monday with a suspension of only one additional game. Meanwhile, UEFA has stated that Flamini will receive no further penalty for his malicious attack.
One need only look at two images from the game -- one of Flamini flying at Ćorluka with both boots in the air, the criterion of a red-card offense; the other of Gattuso grabbing Jordan by the throat -- to determine that both warrant further punishment. By all standards of sportsmanship, Platini should hit Flamini with a one-game suspension and Gattuso with a multiple-game ban. But the UEFA president would need to have a spine to do so, and his comments following the game have cast this in doubt.
What we should take from this showdown at San Siro, though, is not the ugliness of a couple Milan players but the beauty of the team effort shown by Tottenham. In Champions League play, Hotspur had qualified for the group stage and even finished atop of Group A despite allowing a generous 12 goals in 4 away matches. By halftime during Spurs' previous trip to the same stadium in October to face defending UEFA champions Inter Milan, they already had fallen behind 4-0 with goaltender Heurelho Gomes having been sent off the pitch after just eight minutes for a red card.
Tottenham's 21-year-old emerging star, left winger Gareth Bale, announced his arrival on the European stage in the second half of that game when he shook off his team's one-man disadvantage and all but single-handedly scored a hat trick in the 4-3 defeat. Bale then led the charge in Spurs' "glory, glory" night at White Hart Lane in November with two assists in a 3-1 defeat of Inter that proved pivotal to their advancement into the current knockout round.
But Tottenham returned to Milan this week without the injured Bale, and they were further weakened with midfield possession master Luka Modrić starting the game on the bench following a recent appendix operation. The center of the Spurs starting eleven featured Wilson Palacios, a defensive midfielder with only one goal to his name in more than one hundred Premier League appearances, and the young Brazilian midfielder Sandro, who'd made only one start in the Barclays this season. Rafael van der Vaart, the team's leading goal scorer, had practiced just once in preparation for the Milan trip due to a calf strain.
So despite manager Harry Redknapp's pre-game claims to the contrary, many suspected Tottenham would play for a draw and hope simply to bring an even aggregate back to White Hart Lane. But the team made good on its manager's promise to "have a go" at Milan and dominated possession amid consistent attacking play throughout the first half. Recent transfer Steven Pienaar filled in bravely on the left side, and before his injury, Ćorluka regularly hooked up on the right with Aaron Lennon, the pint-sized winger who consistently beat his marker.
Many had wondered how Sandro's countryman Gomes would fare. An aggressive netminder who can have the occasional brain lock, Gomes has of late played like one of the Premier League's elite, and this was the goaltender we saw in Milan on this night. Gomes made two crucial saves against headers from Milan's Mario Yepes to keep the game scoreless deep into the second half.
Amid all the ugliness, a Sandro block and deft pass from Modrić, who'd come on for van der Vaart in the 62nd minute, sent Lennon on a counterattack in the 80th minute. The winger charged down the right side and hopped over a futile lunge by a Milan defender before serving up a cross to the giraffe-like Crouch, who directed his one-touch just inside the left post for the game's loan goal.
It was a beautiful moment. Lennon has been criticized for sometimes punctuating his bursts of speed with less-than-clever final touches. Crouch, meanwhile, has scored just twice in the Premier League this season and sometimes seems limited as a striker by his loping style of play. But Lennon wisely crossed on a play where, one commentator noted, he might have forced a shot in the past, and Crouch's finish rewarded a gritty, game-long effort in which he played tough, total football. The site of Tottenham's 5'5" winger and 6'7" striker standing next to each other in their post-game interview highlighted the sense of team play that had carried the Spurs -- different parts blending as one to overcome a team that was perhaps superior in individual talent but not, on this rainy night in the San Siro, in effort or intellect.