The focus, inevitably, will be on Gareth Bale, and not only because of his current form which, frankly, has reached the levels of the faintly ludicrous. When Tottenham Hotspur last faced Internazionale, at the group stage of the 2010-11 Champions League, no one that attended either tie will forget what he did, least of all Maicon, the then Inter right-back, who left the north London return with his reputation in tatters and black cabbies circling like vultures.

Bale's hat-trick at San Siro had announced his talent to a global audience and Inter will arrive at White Hart Lane for Thursday night's Europa League last-16 first leg with the scars still raised. Never mind that Andrea Stramaccioni is a new manager and the club have overhauled their personnel, with young players champing at the bit for involvement. Veterans of two seasons ago do remain while everyone has heard the name of Bale in the countdown to kick-off. It has drummed hard against the Inter psyche, as Bale-related questions dominated both clubs' pre-match press conferences. The Welshman carries the capacity to unsettle.

And yet, the game's more intriguing sub-plot does not involve him. The alternative tale is also underpinned by self-assured talent, bravery and breakthroughs but the protagonist is the Tottenham manager, André Villas-Boas, who is primed for what he described as a "pretty emotional experience" against his former club.

Villas-Boas has fond memories of the 18 months or so that he spent at Inter as part of José Mourinho's coaching staff and he speaks in slightly awed tones of the splendour of the club and its facilities; the knowledge that he was working at one of Europe's elite. But, having arrived with Mourinho in the summer of 2008, he came to be gripped by frustration.

His role was to provide Mourinho with detailed tactical breakdowns of opposing teams, the same position he filled for him at Chelsea. He did it extremely well. But Villas-Boas came to want more, in terms of working with the first team and helping out on the coaching side. It became clear to him that Mourinho would deny him, even stifle him and that he would have to strike out on his own. In the early months of the 2009-10 season, which Inter would end with the treble of the Champions League, Serie A title and Italian Cup, he took his first managerial position at humble Académica in his native Portugal.

"It was a difficult moment of my professional life," Villas-Boas said. "At that time, I was scouting for José. We had conversations, because I wanted to be a little bit more involved with first-team training. José had always seen me doing the job I was doing [so] we had a chat that my contract at Inter would be the last one.

"It was a difficult step to go, bearing in mind all the things I had access to at Inter: the knowledge and experience with José. But I decided to take the risk and I left. It was probably the right decision but it was very, very difficult at the time to take it."

The separation with Mourinho was acrimonious and at the beginning of this season Villas-Boas revealed that the relationship with his compatriot remained distant, that the pair had not "spoken for quite some time" and that he had not even got Mourinho's phone number.

But if Villas-Boas's short career in management has been marked by the courage that he has placed in his convictions, he will surely take pride in showing Inter what he has built at White Hart Lane. He continues to have close friendships with various employees at the Italian club, speaking to them "even two or three times a week" and his respect for Stramaccioni is clear. At 37, the Italian is two years his senior and they are at the forefront of the generation of thrusting young coaches.

"The position Andrea found himself in was very difficult," Villas-Boas said, "in that there are constant comparisons to José and what he achieved for any manager who lands at Inter. To cope with that pressure is an example. He has done extremely well because he is competing for the Italian Cup and the Europa League ... maybe not for Serie A but a Champions League spot is still there after their win in Catania on Sunday [which moved them to fourth in the table]. The contract he has is all down to merit."

Villas-Boas is enjoying a surge of praise, having taken Tottenham to third place in the Premier League and navigated a course to the business end of the Europa League. To him, the stereotypical view of Europe's secondary cup competition as a thankless slog is wrong. He is in it to win it, and he will name a strong team against Inter, who are depleted due to injuries, with Jermain Defoe set to return up front for Emmanuel Adebayor, who has a short-term knee problem. Villas-Boas subscribes strongly to the notion that victories in any competition beget victories in the others.

"I think what Tottenham has shown this season is an example that contradicts a lot of science, or science-fiction," Villas-Boas said. "There is a lot of rest time between a Thursday and a Sunday. We're looking forward to Inter. In the last 16 of the competition, they represent the best of the best. They give us another opportunity to play a Champions League-level team, like we did in the last round against Lyon."

The upbeat feeling at Tottenham was articulated by Defoe, who spoke of the strongest and deepest squad that he had known during his two spells at the club; the presence of a clinical, winning mentality and, as importantly, the best team spirit he has experienced.

In something of a surprise twist, given his humble and unassuming persona, Bale was revealed by Defoe to be "the first one to be on someone, giving them banter". But Defoe has a comeback for the man whose nine goals in seven matches for Tottenham have made him feel untouchable. To Defoe's considerable delight, Bale's four-and-a-half-month-old daughter, Alba Violet, shares a famous set of initials.

"He has little AVB," said Defoe, who also become a father for the first time last month. "I give him stick. If you have a chance to get it back, you have to take it. Gaz came in the next day [after the birth] with all the pictures, he has loved it and you can tell by how he's playing. He has his little daughter and that stability is important as a professional. He's buzzing at the minute and I think it helps."

The elder AVB hopes to revel against Inter.