Champions League: It’s time for Antonio Conte to unleash timid Spurs with balanced progress


Tottenham are winless in three games in all competitions

The rebellious mood reflected in the loud cheers that greeted Tottenham after 45 minutes against Sporting Lisbon is not exactly reflected in their current state.

Spurs are currently third in the Premier League ahead of Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool, knowing a result in their final group game in Marseille will send them into the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time in three years.

Manager Antonio Conte also transformed Spurs’ fortunes so much last season that they beat Arsenal in Europe’s elite competition on the final day of the campaign.

It all adds to the perspective, however, and there is uneasiness among many Spurs fans, which was seen in microcosm in the dramatic 1-1 draw with Sporting in their Group D match at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

After a poor and negative performance in defeat to Manchester United and another poor display in Sunday’s home loss to Newcastle, the groans began midway through the first half when long, purposeful passes went well away from their intended target.

Sporting were 1-0 up when referee Danny Makkelie blew the half-time whistle. Former Spurs youngster Marcus Edwardsthe answer was a resounding raspberry from the distressed gallery.

It was understandable that Spurs once again played in the first gear, and gave the initiative to a Sporting side who looked sharper and neater in possession.

After that, Spurs were a team barely recognizable from before, it’s not exactly vintage, but at least in that first half there was almost a hint of drama, controversy and chaos that ended in a final full of drama, controversy and chaos putting Sporting under pressure.

Spurs supporters responded as Sporting goalkeeper Antonio Adan was eventually forced to work, saving from Eric Dier, Son Heung-min and Matt Doherty. They woke up and the crowd went with them.

There was still danger, with Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris to thank for a crucial save from Sporting substitute Flavio Nazihinho to make it 1-0, with the striker missing an even better chance moments later in front of an open goal.

Rodrigo Bentancur restored parity and this late show of ambition from Spurs equalized ten minutes later when he headed in an Ivan Perisic corner. Dier and Bentancur had other chances for real drama in the 95th minute when Harry Kane thought he had scored to send Spurs through to the last 16, only for a bitter VAR decision to dampen the celebrations and send Conte into a frenzy. He received a red card in anger.

Antonio Conte has received a red card
Antonio Conte has won just three of his last 12 Champions League games

The big question, apart from why they gave up the goal after such a long break, is why Spurs once again took so long to get going, why they backed off and relinquished control until they had no choice but to let off the handbrake. ?

Conte is clearly a fan of the counter-attacking style, and who are we to question his mastery of the tactic given his record of success?

What is clear, however, is that many Spurs fans – and indeed neutral observers – feel frustrated that a side with the world-class attacking talent of Son and Kane often take a timid approach until forced otherwise.

Conte will rightly point to the Premier League table and Champions League position and insist they are in a very different position at this time last season.

Even so, it’s hard to escape the fact that a big chance was missed, and that Spurs have made things unnecessarily difficult for themselves by being so slow to put their foot on the pedal.

The chances created by Spurs after accepting the positive approach imposed showed what could have been achieved had they done so earlier.

They have struggled against quality teams this season. See Arsenal. Watch Manchester United. See Newcastle United.

If they do it again against Marseille in the final Champions League group game the consequences could be dire.

Champions League Group D looks very dangerous. Spurs, Sporting, Eintracht Frankfurt and Marseille can all reach the playoffs.

Spurs could have been sitting pretty if they had been positive from the start – and that plays to the heart of the jittery mood of their fans, even if, on the face of it, it is a very promising position domestically and in Europe.

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