Brahim Diaz’s early header was the difference as AC Milan defeated Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 at San Siro in the Champions League round of 16 first leg on Tuesday evening.
The hosts were really sharp from the off and got themselves in front inside the opening 10 minutes as Spurs struggled to wake up and assert themselves on the game. It wasn’t the prettiest game of football but AC Milan did enough to gain advantage in the tie and they did show more quality than their English opponents when getting forward. The visitors grew into the contest as the game went on but AC Milan did enough to limit them to very few chances.
The most transparent issue that held Tottenham back in Milan was their midfield and that problem is going to persist for a while. Spurs were dealt a huge blow earlier in the week when it was revealed star midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur had suffered a severe ACL injury in their 4-1 defeat at Leicester City at the weekend, ending his season.
This gave boss Antonio Conte a huge problem heading to San Siro to take on the Rossoneri because his other most recognised midfielder, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, was serving a suspension for their first leg meeting. Yves Bissouma was also unavailable due to an injury that will see him miss around two months, so Conte had no choice but to turn to some of the more inexperienced midfielders in his squad as Oliver Skipp and Pape Sarr were partnered in midfield.
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Their 20 appearances combined in all competitions this term won’t have instilled much confidence in the travelling fans, and for a lot of the first half, the occasion was getting the better of the pair. It came as no surprise because neither of them had ever started a Champions League match before in their careers, they were very much thrown in at the deep end at the electric and hostile San Siro.
Both players lacked the confidence to drive the ball forward, something Bentancur would always try to do when on the pitch for Spurs. Their inexperience led to the visitors lacking a real threat up front as Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Dejan Kulusevski had to feed off scraps when trying to create chances.
This is going to be a huge concern for the coming weeks because while Hojbjerg being fit and available will bring some much-needed stability to the middle of the park, what he brings to the table is very different to what Bentancur offers. The closest player in terms of style to the Uruguayan is Bissouma, who is also sidelined.
Both youngsters were able to grow into the game and they each made some strong challenges to help get their team out of tricky situations, but they couldn’t have the same impact in the opposing half, but neither could the other players in white.
This game highlighted just how key Bentancur has been to Conte this campaign and that Spurs have a tough task ahead of them to cope for the remainder of term without him. For the foreseeable future, Skipp and Sarr will be competing with one another to partner Hojbjerg in midfield. When Bissouma returns from his ankle problem, he will likely start to get a consistent run in the team to fill the void left by Bentancur.
The Mali international has struggled to have the impact that he or the club would have been hoping for when he joined from Brighton & Hove Albion in the summer. We all know what the former Seagull is capable of because he was one of the most sought after midfielders in the Premier League while he was on the south coast, and of course he had a huge influence there. When he returns to fitness he will have a point to prove and will be playing to cement his place in the team and of course will be desperate to see that quality he regularly demonstrated at Brighton to help them through this difficult period.
Spurs have got to play relegation-threatened West Ham United and Chelsea in the coming weeks and they are matches that Spurs need to generate positive results from to boost their chances of finishing inside the top four come May. They will also host AC Milan for the second leg of this tie and despite not the strongest performance, they are certainly still in this tie as they prepare to welcome the Italian giants to north London next month.