By Jay Jaffa
AC Milan legend Alessandro Costacurta kicked off this week's build-up to Inter's clash with Tottenham by warning the Nerazzurri of the challenge that awaits them in north London. “Gareth Bale is scary,” he cautioned, while Javier Zanetti, the Inter captain, chose his words a bit more carefully, insisting: “Bale is a great player and will be difficult to deal with.”
Italian football has had five brushes with Tottenham's flying Welshman in the past two seasons (he missed the 1-0 away win against AC Milan), with three of those meetings taking place in the 2010-11 season; the year Bale truly announced himself on the global stage.
Zanetti was one of a number of Inter defenders left clutching at thin air as the then-winger blazed a trail down the left flank of the San Siro pitch to power in a remarkable hat-trick in the 4-3 loss in that season's group stage.
Two weeks later he was at it again, laying on two fabulous assists for Peter Crouch and Roman Pavlyuchenko at White Hart Lane as Spurs triumphed 3-1, sparking delirious supporters into goading chants of “taxi for Maicon!” - one of the enduring memories of a fine maiden Champions League campaign.
Then 21, Bale was adjusting to the demands of being a first-choice fixture at Spurs, but it was that ultimately futile 4-3 defeat in Italy that launched him on his path to his current position as the Premier League's foremost star. He seems almost certain to take the Player of the Year award and might even claim a clean sweep given his eligibility for the under-23 version of the prize.
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Where he found huge success fearlessly motoring up and down the left wing in the last meeting with Inter, Andrea Stramaccioni's side will face an entirely different beast on Thursday night. Still fearless, but with added belief and awareness of his talent, he cannot be ignored for a second.
Bale has 20 goals for his club in 33 games so far this campaign - his best ever haul - but more impressively nine in his past seven. He is hitting his stride at the right time. Just as Tottenham's form fell off a cliff this time last year, it is Bale who is propelling the team to greater heights than they have ever reached in the Premier League.
In defeating Arsenal 2-1 on Sunday, Andre Villas-Boas broke Spurs' 11-game unbeaten Premier League record – one that had stood since 1995-96. The club have one point more than at this stage last season and are sitting two points ahead of European champions Chelsea and seven ahead of the Gunners, while they are also unbeaten in Europe.
These are heady times for the north London club, but indicative of the steps they have made in the two-and-a-half years between their clashes with Inter.
With Bale wowing audiences worldwide, the club are gaining greater exposure and seem set for a prolonged period of success. A power shift in north London? It has been suggested for years but this finally looks like the year Spurs will finish ahead of Arsene Wenger's team.
Spurs are managed by one of the brightest young managers in the game, who to his credit has rebounded marvellously from his failed spell at Chelsea, and led by a ruthless chairman, who though frugal in his spending has delivered a training facility like no other on the planet. Given a few more years, there will be a state-of-the-art stadium looming over the space currently occupied by White Hart Lane.
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He has terrorised and bludgeoned his way through the division and is now far more than just a winger. The statistics illustrate the point too: in the league, Bale is striking a shot at goal every 22 minutes compared to 33 and 51 in the previous two years. Everything is done with an end goal in mind, and that more often than not is scoring. His one solitary assist is testament to that.
Credit must go to Villas-Boas for persisting and giving Bale the freedom to wander. Gone are the chants of “he plays on the left,” replaced, instead, by “he scores when he wants” which the Spurs faithful sung in delight following his opener against Arsenal. The Portuguese has allowed Bale to bloom, the Welshman reveling as the key protagonist in this up-and-coming Spurs team.
Inter are also growing, also emerging out of the shadow of Jose Mourinho's Champions League winners, but you get the impression that though the Italian side insist they have concerns over Bale, they perhaps do not quite understand just how much Bale has morphed. That is fair - Bale has scored just twice in six Europa League games - and has yet to carry his domestic form to the continent.
However, the prospect of two games against the team he launched his career against should stir fond memories and will prove added motivation for the forward.
The regularity with which Bale defines matches for Tottenham these days has reached the point where it is the norm, the expected outcome any time he latches on to a pass or shifts the ball instinctively on to his left foot. The problem for Inter is that he has evolved beyond comprehension from the boy who strode gallantly across the Giuseppe Meazza turf. On Thursday no one would bet against the Welshman haunting the Nerazzurri again.
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