Antonio Conte nears Tottenham endgame tangled in a web of contradiction

Antonio Conte (right) and Cristian Stellini at Tottenham (Steven Paston/PA) (PA Wire)
Antonio Conte (right) and Cristian Stellini at Tottenham (Steven Paston/PA) (PA Wire)

He’s back. For now, anyway. Antonio Conte’s stop-start season enters its fourth and final phase, interrupted by a World Cup, surgery to remove his gallbladder and a second spell recuperating after he had tried to resume his duties too soon. He returned to Tottenham on Monday and his tenure seems to entering the finishing straight. It could conclude in glory in Istanbul, but it is likelier to end at Elland Road two weeks before the Champions League final.

Conte, who rarely misses a chance to downgrade expectations, shrugged: “If you ask me if I want to win the Champions League, I would say yes but then there is the reality.” One reality is that a club lingers in limbo with a manager who is a mass of contradictions: the most committed of figures on the touchline, the least when it comes to his own future. He had been keen to come back sooner, the doctors preventing him from going to Wolves on Saturday. He had erred by taking charge in San Siro three weeks ago when his side lost 1-0. “For sure I under-evaluated the recovery after surgery,” he said.

A desire to manage Spurs could come at a cost to his health; except that, in other respects, he seems forever wishing himself elsewhere, talking down his club, ploughing a personal path rather than plotting their route. “We needed to go step by step,” he rationalised, talking of taking Spurs, who were out of Europe before Christmas last season, into the last 16 of its premier competition now. Yet next season’s next steps will surely occur without Conte, whose expiring contract and continued reluctance to sign an extension has condemned them to a year of uncertainty.

This has the potential to prove its worst eight days. Cristian Stellini, Conte’s lugubrious-looking assistant, has lost his 100 per cent winning record when standing in for the more charismatic front man. Spurs have lost to Sheffield United and Wolves; with Liverpool’s resurgence, perhaps they have lost their status as the favourites to claim fourth place. Lose to AC Milan, either on Wednesday or an aggregate after a 1-0 setback in San Siro, and they could be ejected from two knockout competitions in successive midweeks. For most in the fanbase, the loss at Bramall Lane has already extended Tottenham’s wait for a trophy into a 16th season.

“The game was not good for us,” said Conte and his decision to bench Harry Kane and field a weakened team, who lost to a still more weakened Championship side, backfired. “After wins you are happy but after defeats you can learn a lot,” added Conte. So the last week may have been a great education. One lesson, maybe, was that there was only so long that Stellini could flourish as a stand-in. “It wasn’t easy for the players to be three weeks without their coach,” said Conte, though Tottenham may soon have rather longer without this particular manager and under three months more with him.

Perhaps the contradictions continued. “Tottenham as a club has to need this target every season, to fight for something important, to fight to win,” said the manager who will probably not be around next season. “For me this season represents a success if we fight. If we fight to be competitive to win something, I think that this has to be our target.” Arguably, then, it is 90 minutes from failure. Tottenham will not compete to win the league. The alternative argument is that finishing fourth is a feat in itself.

Certainly Conte’s signature achievement from his time at Tottenham is qualifying for the Champions League. Eighth after last February’s demoralising defeat to Burnley, they surged up to fourth, scoring 38 goals in their final 14 matches. Despite Kane’s consistency, they have rarely demonstrated such potency since, drawing blanks at Bramall Lane and Molineux. Heung-Min Son has veered from the best season of his career to the worst and Tottenham’s talisman has only found the net in four matches all campaign. Richarlison was Spurs’ record signing and has not scored in his last 18 appearances. Conte’s side have only mustered eight goals in seven Champions League games. There was a sound of Conte’s excuses colliding when he said that England is the hardest country to win something while noting that AC Milan are the champions of Italy.

In his time in the Juventus midfield, Conte faced Milan in the days when they were the outstanding side in world football. Now the financial disparity is such that Spurs outspend them. The seven-time winners have greater pedigree in the Champions League, but Tottenham’s is more recent.

“Don’t forget that last season we were playing the Conference League,” insisted Conte. It is true, though it is equally true Tottenham were Champions League finalists four years ago. They have not had a defining European night since Lucas Moura’s semi-final to Ajax; not in the right sense, anyway, because the 7-2 thrashing by Bayern Munich and the 3-0 loss to a Dinamo Zagreb side whose manager was in prison were grisly.

But they were exiting the Champions League at half-time of their final group game, in Marseille. Clement Lenglet soon equalised but it was not until Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg scored in the 95th minute that Spurs won the group to set up a meeting with Milan. As the improbable surge to the 2019 final and the astonishing ends to the games against Manchester City and Ajax showed, destinies can change dramatically. “The pressure, we live for this game, we live for this moment,” said Conte. When he lives in the moment, few are more animated in Spurs’ cause. But when it is over, this might be his last European game as their manager.