Andre Villas-Boas' side took a commanding lead to San Siro but complacency allowed Inter to take the game to extra time and highlight just how fragile the north Londoners can be
Spurs were outplayed, overrun and outscored in a complete reverse of the first leg as Inter trounced its visitors 4-1, only to exit on the away goal rule. Were it not for Emmanuel Adebayor's tap-in, Ricky Alvarez's firm diving header in the second half of extra time would have consigned Villas-Boas and his side to an embarrassing exit out of the Europa League.
History may now show the Togo striker as the man who nudged Spurs into the quarterfinals but he, along with the abysmal William Gallas typified a stale, fragile performance. They were not the only guilty parties though, and that must bristle with both the supporters who traveled to what they thought was a dead rubber.
Villas-Boas said his side “took a risk” in starting both Adebayor and Jermain Defoe as they chased an away goal, something that backfired spectacularly as an early “knife in the back” from Antonio Cassano put Spurs on the backfoot.
From there it was panic stations. There was no authority figure to calm the team, indeed only Lewis Holtby in the aftermath of the third goal, kept his head high and roused his teammates from the halfway line. Gallas wilted, as he so often does. His stature has diminished over the past two seasons, the confidence gone, the talent shrinking.
This was Gallas' worst performance in a Spurs shirt and came at a time in which his experience was required. There was little Brad Friedel could do from his goalline, while Jan Vertonghen looked bemused at the antics of his center back partner.
Ideas of Scott Parker experiencing something of a resurgence were tempered within 45 minutes after his dreadful use of the ball and for a man who struggles to last 90 minutes, 120 was just cruel. Javier Zanetti on the other hand, at 39, looked as if he could play another game immediately afterwards.
But it is more of a question of mentality. This is the business end of the season, the familiar period in which Spurs traditionally fall away from whatever challenge they're making. The fans have seen it before, Villas-Boas hasn't. He told reporters after the game that “the players decide the match,” that his job is to try and exploit weaknesses.
For a burgeoning manager this may be a little misguided, though he laughed off suggestions that Tottenham underestimated Inter. There are Spurs fans from all generations that will cite numerous examples of a Tottenham collapse, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. It has always been an inherent problem at White Hart Lane.
There is no quick fix, but perhaps Villas-Boas is in a better position than most to find a solution. It is well documented that when Spurs conceded a raft of late goals, he intensified the final moments of training to ensure his players stayed switched on. It worked. If he can find a solution to this problem, Tottenham has a chance to grow further still.
What Villas-Boas will have learned though, is the players that he can trust as he turns his attention back to the Premier League. Holtby offered the energy Spurs lacked for much of the game, Mousa Dembele furthered his credentials, while Gylfi Sigurdsson did his chances of first-team football no harm. Unfortunately there was precious little else. We have seen Tottenham without Gareth Bale and it isn't pretty.
Spurs need to forget this week and quickly. They have Fulham at home on Sunday – a winnable fixture and one that can be used to banish ugly memories of Anfield and San Siro.
Ultimately, though, Tottenham qualified and Villas-Boas will use that to motivate his players going forward. They may have shipped seven goals in two games but however awful it was in Milan, his team just about got there. What Villas-Boas must do now is ensure this complacency doesn't become a habit and get Spurs back on track.