Tottenham. Real Madrid. It got us thinking about Gareth Bale, obvs. But then we thought about that game against Inter and a player who really deserves more credit: Samuel Eto’o. What a legend.
With Tottenham Hotspur meeting Real Madrid in the Champions League this week, plenty of coverage has focused on the ‘special relationship’ between the clubs.
It may have been initially pushed as something at least resembling an equal partnership, but it’s ended up looking a whole lot more like the current relationship between the United States and United Kingdom. No prizes for guessing which club is which.
Over the course of the relationship between the clubs, Madrid signed Luka Modrić and Gareth Bale, while…we could swear someone went the other way since this all began in 2012? No? Are you sure?
A fair amount of the media focus this week has been on Modrić, who played the full 90 minutes of Tuesday’s draw at the Bernabeu, but the Bale deal hurt Spurs fans just as much.
The Welshman made the move at the end of the 2012-13 season, after scoring a career-high 21 league goals, but the game that put him on the giant’s radar a few years earlier was not without its Real Madrid-related sub-plots.
The 2010-11 season was Spurs’ first in the Champions League, and they were drawn in the group stage with an Inter side managed by future Real Madrid boss Rafa Benitez, who had taken over when José Mourinho took the job at…you guessed it, Real Madrid.
After beating Twente in their first home game, with the opener coming from former Real Madrid midfielder (okay, I’ll stop now) Rafael van der Vaart, Harry Redknapp’s side travelled to Milan for the first of their two matches against the holders.
What followed, as many people will tell you, is that Bale terrorised Maicon, ending the Brazilian’s career and helping Spurs sail to first place in the group. Well, that’s not quite accurate.
Yes, Bale scored a hat-trick at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza and helped Spurs to a 3-1 win in the reverse fixture, but the treble in Italy came when Spurs were already 4-0 behind to a team led expertly by Samuel Eto’o.
If you hadn’t seen the game, you could be forgiven for not realising Eto’o even played, let alone made a crucial attacking contribution – and that lack of recognition arguably followed him around throughout a career in which he achieved a great deal more than many of his peers.
You should never read too much into body language, but Eto’o’s relaxed demeanour before kick-off is one of those things it’s ever so easy to read a lot into when watching back.
There was reason for plenty of Inter’s players to be relaxed – they might have only been third in Serie A at the time of the game, but they knew what they were doing in Europe.
They were ahead of their opponents on goal difference, thanks in no small part to the Cameroonian’s hat-trick in a 4-0 win over Werder Bremen, and they had a number of the players who had helped see off Bayern Munich in the previous season’s final.
And sure enough, Eto’o played his part once more against Spurs.
It was he who played in Javier Zanetti for the second-minute opener, settling any nerves in the perfect manner.
It was he who converted from the penalty spot after Heurelho Gomes brought down Jonathan Biabiany.
It was he who provided the deft flick to set up Dejan Stanković, handing Inter a 3-0 lead within 15 minutes.
And it was he who put them four to the good before half-time, nudging a Philippe Coutinho pass beyond substitute goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini.
Throughout his career, Eto’o did everything that was asked of him and more, yet in many circles is rated just below the greats of the game.
Whether that’s down to his nationality, his (unfair) characterisation as ‘not a complete striker’ or the fact that he spent a fair chunk of his career at unfashionable clubs and/or with more marketable team-mates is tough to say.
Doing things the hard way
However, it seems only fitting that one of Eto’o’s most accomplished forward’s performances will forever be associated with an opposition player who ended up on the losing side.
I know I said I was done with the Real Madrid references, but it does feel relevant that Eto’o had to do things the hard way after being allowed to leave the Spanish capital as a teenager and build his reputation elsewhere.
But rebuild it he did, helping Mallorca – Mallorca! – qualify for the Champions League in 2001 and scoring the only goal in a group stage victory away at Schalke.
Still, while that was impressive, he hadn’t done it at a big club.
Not to worry; after 70 goals for Mallorca he moved to Barça, where his final tally of 130 goals in 199 games is higher than Neymar (105 in 186), Patrick Kluivert (122 in 257) and even Luis Suárez, though the Uruguayan’s current tally of 124 has come in about 40 fewer games.
He was the player Barcelona thought they were getting when Thierry Henry joined from Arsenal, ending his spell in Catalunya with a goal in a Champions League final which he started alongside the Frenchman. He even scored a trademark Henry goal against Panathinaikos, as if to prove that exact point.
But hey, anyone can win the Champions League with Barcelona, he’d only be a great if he did it with a smaller club.
“Ugh, fine,” Eto’o says, getting noticeably antsy at your display of impatience. “But let me do it early so you don’t keep nagging me.”
You could see from his first goal for Inter – a lethal volley in the Supercoppa final against Lazio – that he had no plans to fuck around that season, and he ended it with a second Champions League trophy in as many years. Edging past Barcelona on the way, of course, but not scoring in the semi-final because he isn’t one to rub it in.
For most players that would have been enough, but Eto’o went on to hit double-figures for goals in each of the next four seasons, for three different clubs in as many countries.
Sure, two back-to-back Champions League winners’ medals is okay, but is he really good until he’s scored in the Premier League?
No, Cardiff doesn’t count, I meant against a big team?
No, one goal against Liverpool isn’t enough, he needs more than one.
Yeah, like a hat-trick against Man Un…oh, okay, yeah that’ll do.
Hopefully once Eto’o retires, he’ll get the respect he so clearly deserves.
No, he’s not retired yet.
Yes, he’s still scoring. Forty in just over two seasons for Antalyaspor.
Yeah, you’re right, you probably should shut up now.