As Tottenham prepare for a date with destiny – at the Stade Vélodrome against Marseille on Tuesday night – Antonio Conte cannot escape the feeling that it ought not to have come to this; his club’s qualification to the Champions League last-16 should already be secure.
It was – at their own stadium last Wednesday; then it was not. And the fallout to the VAR-driven decision to disallow what would have been a stoppage-time Harry Kane winner against Sporting Lisbon has changed everything; joy to foreboding with the click of one of those lines. Spurs now need a draw to go through. Lose and they would be pressed into the Europa League.
There is the detail of the red card that Conte was shown by the referee, Danny Makkelie, in the emotional aftermath of the Kane goal which was not – Conte was given it for encroaching onto the pitch and it means he will be banned from the dressing-room and touchline in Marseille. His last direct contact with the players will come on the bus to the stadium.
How will Conte communicate from his seat in the stands to the dug-out? By having his brother, Gianluca – a member of the coaching staff – beside him, who will then radio down. Uefa’s rules on indirect communication are not without their grey areas. If there are practical problems and the Marseille manager, Igor Tudor, said it would be better that Conte was inconvenienced, they are outweighed by the psychological ones.
The thing to stress is that the VAR got the Kane call right, however bizarre it felt and however much it appeared to show that hardly anyone actually knows the laws of the game these days. So Spurs simply have to suck it up and get on with it. It is not that simple, however, and what the flashpoint has done is to add another layer to the mental challenge that confronts Conte and his players.
It was interesting to follow the direction of Conte’s anger after the Sporting tie and, indeed, on Friday when he sat down to preview Saturday’s Premier League fixture at Bournemouth, which Spurs would win 3-2 having been 2-0 down – a significant boost. Conte does not believe that a bigger club would have seen a goal chalked off in similar circumstances, a club that play the angles harder, who apply greater pressure where he thinks it can matter. Conte did not mention Juventus, the giants of Italy where he spent the bulk of his playing career and also managed, but they were surely in his thoughts.
The mind went back to when Spurs were knocked out of the 2017-18 Champions League by Juventus in the last-16 and the then Spurs manager, Mauricio Pochettino, accused the Italians of pressurising the referee in the tunnel at half-time – players and senior executives equally on the case.
Pochettino said there were “two games against this type of club – one on the pitch, one outside it” and Juventus had given Spurs “a massive lesson in how to behave” in the latter. He added: “It was easy for the referee to manage us because we were very nice people.”
At Spurs, Conte has urged the hierarchy on more than one occasion to lean more heavily on those who put together the fixture schedule, while in the wake of the VAR drama against Sporting he told the chairman, Daniel Levy, and the managing director, Fabio Paratici, to speak to the authorities about recent decisions that have gone against them. “I understood that to be silent is not good,” Conte added.
The week before last, Conte had also ordered his players to be alive to the game’s darker arts and it all feeds into the need for Spurs to think and act like a big club, the perennial narrative about them having to harden their mentality.
The Vélodrome will have its Virage Nord closed after incidents involving the Marseille support against Eintracht Frankfurt in September but the atmosphere is sure to be hot and it is incumbent on Spurs to show their personality in possession, to be ruthless as a team and even “nasty” – to borrow the word that Conte has used. They must do so from the outset, rather than saving their aggression and a sense of abandon for when the result threatens to slip away, as they have done of late.
When did Spurs last impose themselves in the first half of a game? Not in any of their previous five, beginning with the matches against Everton, Manchester United and Newcastle. It is a worrying trend and one that Conte must rectify because Marseille will have a major bearing on how the season is viewed. The manager will have to make do without Cristian Romero, Dejan Kulusevski and Richarlison. The assistant coach, Cristian Stellini, reported that all three were still out with injuries.
Spurs have failed to perform to the required level in each of the past seven European away ties, going back to the 3-0 Europa League humbling against Dinamo Zagreb in March 2021. There were three losses and a draw in the Europa Conference League last season and so far in the Champions League it has been the last-gasp capitulation against Sporting and the stalemate with Eintracht.
“Every time we play a high-level team, we struggle,” Conte noted after the defeat at Manchester United two weeks ago. Marseille are not in that bracket, with Tudor keen to promote their “outsider” status. The stakes, though, could scarcely be more lofty.