Andre Villas-Boas has warned Internazionale that Gareth Bale is now even more capable of wreaking havoc against them than when he tore them apart the last time around.
Bale caught the world’s attention in October 2010 when he scored a hat-trick at the San Siro and then went on to make a mockery of Brazil right-back Maicon when Inter went down 3-1 to Spurs in the reverse fixture the following month. The victory, and the “Taxi for Maicon” chants that rang out around White Hart Lane that night, will live long in the memory of Tottenham fans, but Bale’s determination not to dine out on those two games for the rest of his career has allowed him to develop in to an even more devastating player.
Bale starred for Tottenham last season, but it is only in this campaign that the 23-year-old has come to be regarded as having similar quality to the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Bale has scored 20 goals for Spurs this season, comfortably his best return as a professional, and his manager thinks the Welshman is primed to cause yet more damage to Inter when the two teams lock horns in the first leg of their Europa League last-16 tie at White Hart Lane tonight.
“I think Gareth has evolved as player. He is even more threatening now,” the Tottenham manager said. “I remember seeing the highlights of Inter v Tottenham, and how Tottenham came back into the game late on. Maicon was an outstanding right-back, one of the Brazilian right backs, so to see a young player like Gareth play like he did against him demonstrates his talent.
“Two years on, he plays in a different position. He’s become a different player; a bigger player and a more complete player. He’s the kind of player who can determine the outcome of a game, as we’ve seen recently.”
Bale, as Villas-Boas points out, has been crucial to the unbeaten 12-match run that has seen Spurs climb above Chelsea into third place in the league. The Welshman has scored nine times in seven games. Without those goals Tottenham would be seventh. Bale has struggled with injuries in the past, but Villas-Boas sees no reason to rest him. “He is fine. Most of the players feel fine and fresh,” the Portuguese said.
Chelsea are also in Europa League action tonight, with Rafael Benitez insisting his priority is simply winning their next game. And that is why his immediate focus falls on the away tie against Steaua Bucharest, rather than Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final at Manchester United or securing a top-four finish in the Barclays Premier League.
Chief executive Ron Gourlay, speaking on a promotional visit to Asia ahead of the forthcoming pre-season tour, reiterated a place in next season’s Champions League is the over-riding concern this term. For Benitez the priority is the next obstacle, but the Spaniard hopes the Blues have numerous hurdles to overcome in the closing weeks of the season as he seeks to fulfil his brief of a top-four finish before his contract as interim manager ends in May. “We will try to progress in every competition and the next game is the most important game,” he said.
Tonight’s fixture at the Nat-ional Arena in Romania’s capital will be the 50th competitive match of a season which began with Chelsea in contention for seven trophies; the Europa League is the unexpected eighth for the winners of last season’s Champions League.
Newcastle are the third English team left in the tournament and manager Alan Pardew has ordered his players to go into tonight’s showdown with Anzhi Makhachkala on the artificial pitch at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium believing they can win the trophy. Pardew said: “Do I think we have got a chance in the competition? When you get to this stage, all the clubs have a chance.
“You need some luck, but you need a good technical game and you need to have the right mentality in the group.”