Tottenham clumsily stumbling out of Antonio Conte era
By Sean Walsh
FROM TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR STADIUM - Tottenham's last faint hopes of winning a trophy this season have slipped away.
After losing 1-0 to AC Milan in the Champions League last 16, Spurs will now have to focus on a flailing Premier League campaign. They currently sit fourth to their credit, but keep finding new ways to open the door to their rivals.
On Antonio Conte's return from gallbladder surgery, Tottenham looked predictable and without ingenuity. A once well-oiled race car has rusted, the engine has given up on it.
Whether the fans drive the team or the team ignites the fans is a chicken-and-egg blame game as old as the sport, but the disconnect was palpable. 'No one wants to be here' a friend in the stands texted me pre-match. Kick-off was delayed, the iconic Champions League theme played at the wrong time.
Ben Davies - 'Gentle' Ben Davies to his biggest supporters - was twice the subject of vocal fan ire early on, once for allowing Junior Messias to skip past him too easily, then for inadvertently dribbling the ball out off of his right boot. Tensions were immediately high, no one was safe.
Even Conte - at once almost universally popular in N17, in more recent months seen as the leader of the rebellion against owners ENIC and chairman Daniel Levy - had his decisions questioned and booed by fans, 'you don't know what you're doing' echoed around parts of Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
His decision to substitute Dejan Kulusevski for Davinson Sanchez - admittedly following Cristian Romero's daft dismissal (drink) - felt eerily similar to the last action of predecessor Nuno Espirito Santo, whose reign closed by inexplicably hooking Lucas Moura for Steven Bergwijn while also needing a goal.
Spurs racked up a grand total of 0.46 xG (via FotMob) in a must-win game, so it's hard to say the supporters weren't onto something.
90min reported this week that it is unlikely Conte will be at Tottenham beyond the summer. Club legend Mauricio Pochettino would be open to returning. It's the worst kept secret in football - it feels more likely that Basil Fawlty and Del Boy will be at Spurs next season than their current head coach.
If Conte chooses to last the season (if it is his decision to make), he may still be able to repeat his heroics of last year, transforming Tottenham into one of the Premier League's most lethal forces and fighting their way into the top four.
But there seldom feels any chance of that or any point of waiting until then to part. His future clearly isn't at Spurs, and Tottenham's can't afford to just keep sleepwalking out of seasons like this.
By full-time, sparse sections of an exiting crowd were chanting Pochettino's name to that famous old Pilot song. You're humming it in your head right now. Everyone knows where Spurs are heading and there's no point pretending otherwise anymore.