Tottenham’s Champions League charge could finally erase the club’s unwanted label as Conte’s work raises questions over why Manchester United failed to hire him
There is one tag that Antonio Conte must erase from his club’s vocabulary if he is to be successful in north London.
You know the one: ‘Spursy.’ This notion – one that has followed the club around for years – decades even – that there is a soft underbelly just waiting to be exposed. That if they can find a way to implode, they will. Actually, it’s sometimes worse than that. Sometimes, it just happens.
Like the time they needed victory at West Ham to cement Champions League qualification and were knocked out by a dodgy lasagne. Arsenal fans everywhere laughed long and loud into the night after that one. There are numerous other examples – and they’re not all bad. Even when Spurs finally headed into the final of European football’s Blue riband competition, they did it with a comeback in Amsterdam that beggared belief.
It was, well, just ‘Spursy.’ This all adds to the excitement of club motto ‘To dare is to do.’ But this roller-coaster of emotions has never actually translated into anything tangible, like a big silver pot. In Antonio Conte – at long last – they have a manager capable of dismantling the myth.
With the Gunners surprisingly caving in at home to Brighton, this was a heaven-sent opportunity to plant a stake in the ground; to demonstrate Spurs’ top-four credentials and put clear water between them and their rivals.
In days gone by, these white-shirted players would have run up the white flag – crumbling under the sudden weight of expectation. Villa Park may be one of their happy hunting-grounds – they last lost in this part of Birmingham 14 years ago – but this had one of their typical hiccups written all over it. It was an accident waiting to happen.
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Villa boss Steven Gerrard, perhaps for the first time in his career, is being put under the microscope and being asked if he knows what he is doing. But the streetwise Scouser read the script and set up his men to press and press whenever Spurs fancied playing out from the back. It knocked Conte’s side entirely out of their stride.
Although the visitors were ahead inside the opening three minutes, Villa laid siege to Hugo Lloris’ goal and it took a string of superb stops to prevent an equaliser. And even though the final scoreline showed a thumping victory, it cannot mask the effort that went into protecting Lloris. Perhaps it’s that old Italian mentality. Perhaps it’s just that of a winner.
With Conte’s know-how and the experience within Spurs’ ranks, there’s no reason why this collection shouldn’t end up fourth. Lloris is a World Cup winner, Kane captains England, Eric Dier has seen it all – if not done it all – and the three January recruits from Italy have settled in just fine. In fact, the only question really worth asking is what on earth Manchester United have been doing, scouring the planet for a man who can light a fire under the club?
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When the ex-Chelsea chief was making all sorts of noises a few weeks ago – all but pinning his dissatisfaction with life on a public noticeboard – those in the corridors of power at Old Trafford ignored it. And while there is an agreement among Premier League clubs not to pinch each other’s managers during a season, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Instead, those sage old souls who have overseen one car crash after another would be taking an enormous gamble in appointing Erik ten Hag – a man who has a track record of winning very little and none at all of the Premier League. Conte knows how to win; in England, Italy or wherever. With him in their corner, Spurs’ unwanted label might be binned once and for all.