LONDON - Rafael van der Vaart has not had much luck with the Champions League so he is revelling in his somewhat unexpected assault on the knockout stages with Tottenham Hotspur.
The gifted attacking midfielder, fresh from helping the Netherlands to the World Cup final, joined Spurs in August on a deadline-day transfer from Real Madrid which, at 8 million pounds, is starting to look like the deal of the decade.
The London club were about to take part in the Champions League for the first time so his expectation level was somewhat lower than when he joined Real Madrid from Hamburg SV two years earlier.
However, thanks in part to his sustained excellence, Spurs face AC Milan in the second leg of their last-16 tie on Wednesday with the advantage of an away goal and a place in the last eight beckoning.
"I'm really excited, I'm happy I'm fit," Van der Vaart told reporters on Tuesday having recovered from a calf injury that had put his involvement in doubt.
"The Champions League has been hard for me. In 2003 with Ajax (Amsterdam) we reached the quarter-finals but then lost to Milan in the last minute. That was a real shame as we had some good young players - me, Zlatan Ibrahimovic (who he will face on Wednesday), Wesley Sneijder, Mido, me - that was a great team."
Van der Vaart missed out after moving to Hamburg but renewed his association with Europe's elite competition after his move to Spain.
"When I went to Madrid I thought 'now I'll get to the final' but in the two years I was there we lost to Olympique Lyon and Liverpool so I was really disappointed.
"By the time I got to Madrid the pressure was so high having not reached the quarter-finals for so many years.
"With Spurs it's different. Everyone is pleased that we've played well but to reach the quarter-final the pressure is different and it isn't necessarily expected."
Van der Vaart, who has scored 12 goals and created countless others to become an instant crowd favourite, said he had settled quickly into his new life, on and off the pitch.
"It's gone so well I feel really at home here, from the first day it felt like a family," said the 28-year-old. "It's nice in England, everyone is so open and I enjoy playing with my team mates.
"Our manager wants nice football, a lot of goals, and to give the fans a special night and that's another reason why I'm happy here.
"It's the same playing for the Dutch national team, where we are expected to play attacking football."
Milan's Brazilian forward Robinho said this week that Spurs concentrated on delivering crosses to tall striker Peter Crouch and Van der Vaart said they would happily go down that route if it was the best way to find a way through.
"We can play really good football but when Peter Crouch is playing it's normal to try to reach him," he said.
"I'm always there around him and I've scored six or seven from his knock downs and that's really difficult to defend against.
"We want to attack and we will attack tomorrow. We want to reach the final and if that comes from long balls, then we'll play long balls."comments