By Jay Jaffa
There may be more than just the 2000 travelling Tottenham fans upset by Gareth Bale's absence for Thursday night's Europa League second-leg clash with Inter. Realistically, most Nerazzurri supporters will know this tie is all but over and the nostalgic among them may have relished a sighting of the boy who arrived a virtual unknown in 2010 and left with the world at his feet.
Instead, suspension robs San Siro of the chance to catch a glimpse of the speeding Welshman. Referee Antonio Lahoz adjudged Bale's tumble under Walter Gargano's challenge in the first leg to be fraudulent and the 23-year-old collected the yellow card for simulation that prompted a one-game suspension.
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One-sided contest to one-man team, Andre Villas-Boas has had to field numerous questions in recent months over his side's reliance on Bale, but without the 23-year-old the Portuguese must turn to the rest of his squad to negotiate what many are calling a dead rubber.
There is an oft-used phrase to describe Villas-Boas' set-up: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – and there will not be a better occasion than Thursday evening's game to prove this to be true. Without Bale, Tottenham will line up without a star name.
It should afford Lewis Holtby the opportunity to stake a claim for a regular starting role after featuring sporadically from the bench in recent weeks, while the in-form Gylfi Sigurdsson will hope to use the fixture as a chance to bolster his own case for first-team football.
The Icelander has had something of a resurgence in recent weeks, playing a crucial role from the left in wins over West Ham, Arsenal and Inter with two assists and two goals. There are fewer discerning voices surrounding his inclusion in the starting XI than there were in the early stages of his Spurs career.
Both midfielders should operate behind Emmanuel Adebayor or Jermain Defoe - who are both desperately shy of form - and will have Spurs looking more like Villas-Boas' Porto team; a side that utilised inverted widemen. Minus Bale there should be a more direct approach to their play and that will largely stem from Sigurdsson breaking off his flank and probing the Inter backline.
It is hard to second guess Villas-Boas at the best of times, and although the manager has vowed to name a strong line-up, there could be opportunities for Jake Livermore, Steven Caulker, Kyle Naughton and even Tom Carroll at San Siro to further their own cases as Tottenham look to press home their push for a top-four finish and the Europa League trophy.
Inter are rife with disharmony following a home defeat to Bologna at the weekend and further talk of manager Andrea Stramaccioni leaving in the summer, and the turbulent atmosphere in Milan could not be further from the stability that seems to define Spurs these days.
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Spurs hold the biggest first-leg lead of the Europa League last-16 encounters and will carry confidence to Italy. They have not conceded a goal in their previous five meetings with Italian clubs and boast one of only two unbeaten records in this season's competition, not forgetting the achievement of knocking out Lyon – a true Champions League heavyweight in recent years.
Inter are in a transitional phase and were nowhere near the level Villas-Boas predicted when he described them as the best team left in the draw, but this will be another prize scalp should Spurs avoid a dramatic collapse.
If Tottenham do complete the job, Villas-Boas, and indeed chairman Daniel Levy, may also learn more about the squad ahead of next season. In what is likely to be a busy summer, Spurs need to have a picture of what is required to keep the club competing for Champions League places.
There will, inevitably, be massive interest in Bale but, as Goal.com exclusively revealed earlier in March, he will be willing to stay in north London should they secure qualification to next season's Champions League. Regardless of his and the club's intentions, though, a contingency plan must be drawn up.
Thursday's match will therefore be an eye-opener to everyone involved at Tottenham. How far have the team come? More importantly, how good is the team shorn of its star performer?
The best way to answer these questions will be for Spurs to negotiate a safe passage into the last-eight with a no-frills, professional performance. With that, the fringe players will go some way to proving their worth and emboldening Villas-Boas for the run-in ahead.
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