With 75 minutes on the clock, it looked like being a frustrating return to the Champions League for Tottenham Hotspur. The score remained deadlocked at 0-0 as Antonio Conte’s side hosted Marseille on matchday one last Wednesday. A failure to triumph on home soil would have represented a missed opportunity for Spurs, who were back at Europe’s top table after a two-year absence.
Then up popped Richarlison. His late brace secured all three points for the north Londoners. Having had a weekend off to rest, Spurs will fancy their chances of picking up another victory when they face Sporting CP on Tuesday.
Tottenham reached the Champions League final in 2019 after memorable triumphs over Manchester City and Ajax in the knockout rounds. They did not go on to lift the trophy, but making it to the showpiece event was a major accomplishment for a club that were by no means Champions League regulars before Mauricio Pochettino took charge.
After largely underwhelming spells in charge for Jose Mourinho and Nuno Espirito Santo, optimism abounds at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium once more. Conte is a world-class coach with a proven track record of success. He has won league titles at three different clubs: Juventus, Chelsea and Inter. And he has already made vast improvements at Spurs, where a title tilt this term cannot be ruled out.
The only question mark against Conte is his surprisingly subpar record in continental competition. His Juventus team were comfortably the best in Italy between 2011 and 2014, when they won three Serie A crowns. But in the Champions League, Juve suffered one group stage exit and one run to the quarter-finals. Conte’s successor Max Allegri would later lead the Bianconeri to the final on two occasions.
Chelsea were absent from Europe in Conte’s title-winning campaign. The following year, the English champions crashed out in the round of 16, going down 4-1 to Barcelona over two legs.
It was a similar story at Inter. They went out in the group in 2019/20, although the Nerazzurri were handed a tough draw alongside Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund and Slavia Prague. A third-place finish saw them enter the Europa League and Inter made it through to the final, but were edged out 3-2 by Sevilla on the night.
In Conte’s second season at the helm, Inter once again failed to make it into the round of 16. This time they finished bottom of a group containing Real Madrid, Borussia Monchengladbach and Shakhtar Donetsk, winning just one of their six matches.
When Conte has a week to prepare for a game, he is arguably the best manager in the world. It is no coincidence that he won the league title in his first season at both Juventus and Chelsea when those clubs were absent from Europe. Like many supporters, Conte appears to make the league his priority over the Champions League, resulting in a disappointing record in the latter.
Still, it is puzzling that a coach of his quality has only ever reached one quarter-final. During his time at Juventus, there were suggestions that Conte’s three-at-the-back formation was not suited to European football, but that argument is no longer convincing now that such a system has become more common across the continent.
Doubt has also been cast on Conte’s in-game tactical acumen, with accusations that he struggles to turn the tide when things are going against his side, an alleged flaw which can be fatal in knockout football. But that does explain why Conte’s teams have so often struggled in the group phase, which is essentially a mini-league format.
Perhaps this will be the season when Conte finally makes progress in Europe. Tottenham have been handed a favourable group stage draw, so a place in the last 16 is theirs for the taking. After the joys of 2018/19, Spurs supporters would love another run to the latter stages of the biggest club competition in the world game.