They were thrust into the spotlight at one of football’s most iconic venues against the seven-time European champions, but a young Tottenham midfield duo showed there was hope amid the gloom of defeat in Milan for Antonio Conte’s side.
Injuries to Yves Bissouma and Rodrigo Bentancur, alongside Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s suspension, meant Oliver Skipp and Pape Matar Sarr were handed their first Champions League starts for Spurs at the San Siro.
And while the Premier League side may have suffered a 1-0 loss against reigning Serie A champions AC Milan, Skipp and Sarr justified their manager’s praise and gave Spurs belief they can overcome that deficit in the second leg on 8 March.
“I am really satisfied for both players because Pape Sarr and Skippy played a really good game and showed the trust we have in them, they repaid this,” said Conte.
“Don’t forget we are now with three midfielders and have to continue maybe until the end of the season with three midfielders, but this kind of performance makes me more relaxed because I know I can count on them 100%.”
Skipp and Sarr ‘stand tall’
Sarr, 20, underlined the maturity of his display by having more touches (76) and playing more passes (59) than any other player on the pitch including Milan’s Italian international midfielder Sandro Tonali.
The Senegal international Sarr also defended doggedly throughout, while Skipp, who was helping Norwich win the Championship two seasons ago, was not far behind and looked at ease in front of 74,320 fans in a high-pressure atmosphere.
“Me and Pape did our jobs in midfield, there were things we did well and things we could have done better,” said the 22-year-old.
“It was nice to gain the manager’s trust and hopefully we repaid it.”
Sarr, who joined Spurs from Metz in the summer of 2021 for £14.5m and was promptly allowed to return to the French side on loan, also made light of his relative inexperience, in only his sixth appearance for the club.
“Skipp was very neat and tidy, he did all the sensible things, not trying to overdo it – but Sarr really caught the eye, he was everywhere,” said former Scotland winger Pat Nevin on BBC Radio 5 Live.
“His energy was great, his utter confidence and arrogance on the ball – he was playing some World Cup 40, 50-yard balls across the pitch and they were coming off.
“It is not normal, it is a young player coming in who is fourth or fifth choice [who stands out]. He was given an unexpected chance and was probably Spurs best player on the night – the manager will be delighted as well.”
Speaking on BT Sport form Tottenham, Jermaine Jenas, added: “Eyeballs were on them. They stood tall and were the positives that came out of tonight.
“Sarr in particular, his passing, how aggressive he was in midfield, Skipp in his first Champions League experience on such a stage, it was a real positive for Antonio Conte to say he can rely on them. Big tackles, getting back, breaking up interceptions, it was good to see.”
‘Spurs are still favourites’
Prior to Tuesday’s encounter in Italy, Milan head coach Stefano Pioli had lamented the financial gap between Premier League clubs and Europe’s traditional elite.
However, while there was limited evidence of that in their 1-0 victory, their failure to put the tie to bed against a depleted Spurs side could prove costly when they travel to London for the return leg in March.
“Even at this point, I am putting Spurs as favourites to go through – the quality they have got and the weaknesses in that Milan side,” Nevin added.
“It wasn’t a bad performance from Spurs, they didn’t create enough. You could argue they could have got a draw. The understanding from the front three wasn’t there. It’s about getting here and still being involved in the tie. Spurs are still well in this.”
Speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live Everton goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, who spent time on loan at Milan in 2019-20, endorsed that view due to the attacking depth Spurs have at their disposal.
“I don’t see how they are going to be so tame in the second leg. When you look at that fire power, Richarlison and Arnaut Danjuma coming off the bench, they are going to create more chances and I feel like they will score.
Jenas added: “Spurs know what the task is, fly out the blocks, get in their faces. I feel like Milan even winning 1-0, with those big chances they missed, will be disappointed.”