Champions League: Time for Antonio Conte to unleash timid Spurs with progress in balance

Antonio Conte

The mutinous mood reflected in the loud booing that greeted Tottenham after 45 minutes against Sporting Lisbon is not exactly reflected by their current status.

Spurs currently stand third in the Premier League ahead of Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool knowing a result at Marseille in their final group game 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 to such an extent last season that they beat Arsenal to a place in Europe’s elite competition on the final day of the campaign.

It all adds perspective, yet there is an undercurrent of discontent among many Spurs fans that was seen in microcosm in a dramatic 1-1 draw with Sporting in the Group D game at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

Following an insipid, negative performance in defeat at Manchester United and another poor showing when losing at home to Newcastle on Sunday, the groans started midway through the first half when long, aimless passes floated well away from their intended target.

When referee Danny Makkelie sounded the whistle at half-time with Sporting leading 1-0 courtesy of a goal from former Spurs youngster Marcus Edwards , the response was a resounding raspberry from the discontented gallery.

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

What followed was a Spurs team barely recognisable from what had gone before, not exactly vintage but at least putting Sporting under pressure that culminated in a finale containing drama, controversy and chaos barely hinted at in that first half.

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

There was still jeopardy as Spurs were grateful to keeper Hugo Lloris for a crucial save from Sporting substitute Flavio Nazinho with the score at 1-0, the forward missing an even better chance in front of an open goal moments later.

Rodrigo Bentancur restored equality and rewarded this belated show of Spurs’ ambition with an equaliser ten minutes from time as he headed in Ivan Perisic’s corner. Dier and Bentancur had other opportunities before the real drama came in the 95th minute when Harry Kane thought he had scored the goal that sent Spurs into the last 16, only for a bitterly contested VAR decision to snuff out the celebrations and send Conte into such a rage he received a red card.

Antonio Conte receives a red card

The big question, apart from why the goal was ruled out after a lengthy stoppage, was why Spurs once again took so long to get going, why they stood back and ceded control until they were left with no choice other than to let the handbrake off?

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

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

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

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

The chances Spurs created once they adopted an enforced positive approach showed what might have been achieved had they done so sooner.

It has cost them against teams with quality this season. See Arsenal. See Manchester United. See Newcastle United.

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

Champions League Group D has a very hazardous look about it. All four of Spurs, Sporting, Eintracht Frankfurt and Marseille could reach the knockout stage.

Spurs could have been sitting pretty had they been positive from the start – and this drives at the heart at the nagging mood of nervousness among their fans despite what looks, at a glance, to be a highly promising position both domestically and in Europe.

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