Maicon is not a bad player, by any stretch of the imagination. He didn’t win the Italian national lottery to win a place in the Inter side, and he isn’t related to Massimo Moratti. He broke through the youth system in the fiercely competitive world of Brazilian football and into the Cruzeiro team. From there he was transferred to Monaco, where he again managed to hold onto his place in the first team and attract the interest of the Italian giants, Internazionale. He has played well over one hundred games for Inter, and has won four Serie A champions and, earlier this year, the UEFA Champions League. He has also played over sixty games for Brazil.
Tonight, however, Maicon was turned inside out, taken to the cleaners and eaten alive by a player that not so long ago had reached a near talismanic status after starting his first twenty-four matches for Spurs without having appeared on the winning size once. Gareth Bale only turned twenty-one just over three months ago, yet he is blossoming on one of the biggest stages of all, the UEFA Champions League, and this evening he added further strings to his bow with a performance of such accomplishment that, for all of the excitement that Spurs supporters will have over his current excelsis, the nagging doubt may start to form in the back of their minds of how long it will be before other, bigger predators will come looking for him.
There is undoubtedly something exuberantly gung-ho about Spurs in the Champions League this season. Whether such an attitude will be able to carry them to the absolute latter stages of the tournament is debatable, but any preconceptions about the inherent tight-fistedness of Italian defences were swept to one side with a Spurs performance that brought to mind fine the Glory Glory Nights of the past. The crowd, rumbling, “When the Spurs going marching in” from a deep bass beginning to a tumultuous finish, played their part, whilst, on the pitch, the home side set about the European champions with such a lack of regard for their standing and reputation that there was a sense of inevitability about this result long before the team had done anything tangible to warrant it.
It took eighteen minutes for Bale to make the decisive break-through, though he had threatened to before this with a couple of runs at Maicon which left his Brazilian adversary for dead. With a hop and a skip, he worked himself some space and threaded a fine pass through for Rafael Van der Vaart, who had not even been certain of playing until a late fitness test, to smash the ball in to give Spurs the lead. Seven minutes later, he is away again and sets up Peter Crouch, but Crouch opted for the exuberant and blazed his shot wide from six yards out with the goal gaping before him. It was only in the final minutes of the half that Inter finally started to make any significant headway into the game and a quite wonderful save from Carlo Cudiccini from a Wesley Sneijder free-kick saved Spurs from conceding a most undeserved equaliser three minutes from the break.
At half-time, this was the main point for consideration. Players of the quality of Sneijder and Samuel Eto’o are always capable of finding something from nothing. Inter might only need one moment of brilliance to salvage a point from this game, and they have plenty of players that could provide it. Such concerns, however, prove unfounded. Van der Vaart doesn’t make it out of the dressing room, but Spurs come out for the second half at the same speed that they started the first and Inter simply don’t have any response to it. Bale continued to torment Maicon on the Spurs left, and after an hour he made a second goal for Crouch. A burst of pace found him some space, but his cross was absolutely through the eye of a needle, a perfect, perfect pass that the gangly striker can’t miss.
Shell-shocked, Inter retreated and Spurs, with the win all but in the bag, seemed quite content to take their foot off the gas somewhat. With ten minutes left to play, however, Eto’o picked a spot and hauled Inter back into the game and suddenly the jitters feel as if they could come creeping back. There was, however, no need to be overly concerned. With just over a minute left to play, Bale picked up the ball on the edge of the Spurs penalty area and took off again. Maicon, already bearing the slumped shoulders of the beaten man, loped off in dismal pursuit of the ball but Bale simply thumped it past him and tore past him. Cue another perfect pass into the centre, this time for Roman Pavlyuchenko to roll the ball in to wrap the points up for Spurs and take them to the top of their group with two games left to play.
There is something fundamentally exhilirating about watching Gareth Bale play when he is in form like this. When he gets the ball, White Hart Lane crackles with electricity and a low rumble, like the sound of an aircraft taking off, pours forth from the stands. He his irresistable and on top of his pace, the precision of his passing, that final ball into the six yard area, remains an absolute delight to watch. Spurs may well get caught out by cannier opposition than Internazionale were tonight at a later stage in this competition (indeed, they could still miss on qualification from the group stages of it), but this evening they were playing football from the absolute top drawer – a match for anyone in Europe. Glory glory nights, indeed.