A yellow card for diving that rules the Welshman out of the second leg took the gloss off his opening goal
In 2010 Gareth Bale burned himself into the folk memory of one of Europe's giants by following up a scorching hat-trick at the San Siro with an explosive performance in a 3-1 victory at White Hart Lane – and the way Italian journalists quizzed the Internazionale manager, Andrea Stramaccioni, before this reunion about how he would neutralise the club's nemesis was vaguely evocative of medieval villagers imploring their chief to protect them from some fearsome monster who had visited unspeakable cruelties on their forefathers.
In his short career as a senior manager the 37-year-old Stramaccioni has earned a reputation as a man who always has a plan. He has become known as something of an anti-Arsène Wenger: whereas the Arsenal manager always sends his team out to play the same way, seemingly believing it is a sign of weakness to alter his approach in recognition of the opposition's strengths, the Inter manager has turned the Nerazzurri into a chameleon-like creature, continually changing appearance to factor in enemy threats.
He regularly tinkers and there was much talk in the Italian media of the manager devising a "cage" to lock up Bale for 90 minutes. If what he produced was intended to be a cage, then remember never to leave Stramaccioni in charge of a zoo. Because Bale was free to romp as he pleased.
Stramaccioni, it seemed, opted for the Wenger method after all, electing to erect no anti-Bale barricade and just hope the beast did not turn up. That did not work for Arsenal in Sunday's north London derby and it was quickly exposed as folly here.
Bale should have opened the scoring in the second minute but miskicked after Aaron Lennon had alerted the visitors to the presence of another dangerous winger by flying down the right and presenting Bale with a perfect cut-back.
Walter Gargano was the closest opponent to him and was about eight yards away, suggesting the deep-lying midfielder was not detailed with tracking Inter's notorious tormentor. Or maybe he was and just did not bother doing so, which would have been in keeping with a slovenly performance by the Italians, who started this season by taking the Europa League seriously but appeared to have changed their mind before this game owing to complications in Serie A, where they are just outside the Champions League places.
It would have been interesting to see whether the superb right-back Javier Zanetti would have fared any better against Bale than Maicon did in the side's last encounter but Bale's conversion from rampant wide man to wandering destroyer meant the pair seldom came into direct confrontation.
At 23 Bale has become at home with having no fixed abode. He has outgrown the limited sprint-cross-shoot role and amassed enough wisdom, versatility and physical power to choose where he goes and how he wreaks havoc. Three years ago he would not have surged into the box to bang a header into the net but that is what he did here in the sixth minute, when he leapt like an all-star basketballer above Esteban Cambiasso to meet Gylfi Sigurdsson's cross and slamdunk Spurs into the lead.
Part of Inter's problem was that Tottenham were proving they are not a one-man team: Inter were being over-run everywhere so could ill-afford to start concentrating on Bale. "Bale is a great player and he exploited his physicality well for the first goal but this was a Tottenham victory, not a Bale victory," Stramaccioni said afterwards.
True enough, Lennon and Scott Parker dazzled but it was Sigurdsson and Jan Vertonghen – from a Bale corner – who plundered the next two goals. A Bale charge on the hour-mark must have seemed like a flashback to 2010 but, after blasting past three opponents, he shot wide from 18 yards.
The only other mercy on a grim night for Inter was that Bale showed there is one part of his game that has not improved: he remains a poor simulation of a clever simulator, as demonstrated by his deserved booking in the 14th minute, when he left his leg to collide with Gargano's before tumbling over it in the box.
Bale denies he dives, claiming that previous bookings for simulation this season – against Liverpool, Sunderland and Fulham – were instances of him taking evasive action to avoid fouls. Here he sought contact. André Villas-Boas declined to explain: "I don't want to go into that. We have a wonderful player to enjoy and it's ridiculous to go into anything else." Bale will miss the return leg at San Siro. Inter will not miss him.