Spurs manager Antonio Conte misses 'match of year' against Marseille in Champions League

Italian coach's red card against Sporting means he will be missing from touchline for make-or-break clash away to French side

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Igor Tudor, the manager of Olympique Marseille, calls it the “match of the year.” For Antonio Conte, whose Tottenham Hotspur are in southern France for the make-or-break fixture, it will bookend a transformative year, marking the Italian’s first anniversary as manager of the Premier League club.

A pity then, that he’ll feel so distanced from the crackling energy around Tuesday’s Champions League showdown.

Conte, who 12 months ago on Tuesday agreed to take over from Nuno Espirito Santo at Tottenham, will be serving a touchline and dressing-room ban, the penalty imposed on him by Uefa for the red card he received close to the end of Tottenham’s 1-1 draw with Portuguese club Sporting Lisbon, in what has turned into the most taut, most tense group in this season’s European Cup.

Conte’s ill-tempered outburst was prompted by a VAR decision that ruled out a late Harry Kane winner, leaving Spurs obliged to chase the point they need to guarantee progress to the knockouts at the famously hostile Stade Velodrome, a portion of which will be closed to spectators because of crowd incidents during Marseille's defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt in September.

That loss made Tudor, appointed OM manager in the summer, the latest inheritor of a dreadful long-term jinx in the competition. It was the club’s 14th defeat in 15 matches in club football’s most glamorous tournament, a wretched record stretching back over 10 years.

Three decades ago, OM were on their way to becoming France’s only European Cup winners. The decline has been painful, even if the two victories over Sporting this season provided overdue cheer.

When Tudor calls Tuesday evening OM’s “match of the year,” he is playing it down. Victory would represent an achievement unprecedented in a decade; victory would put the Ligue 1 side in the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time since 2012.

Tottenham 2 Marseille 0: player ratings

It would also expose Conte to unwanted reminders that among the elite coaches of his generation, he has a conspicuous gap on his resume: Europe has been his Achilles heel as a club manager.

He has won five league titles spread across two different countries, Italy and England, but his Champions Leagues campaigns, at Juventus, at Chelsea and at Inter Milan have mostly disappointed.

Conte’s drive and clarity lifted Spurs from ninth in the Premier League, when he agreed to take over, to fourth place by last May, and with that the access to Uefa’s prestigious top tier that had been targeted by Tottenham’s bosses.

That Spurs are currently third in England’s top division means he and the Tottenham chairman, Daniel Levy, who committed a vast salary and an enlarged transfer budget to the club’s third new manager within as many years, can review Conte’s impact with some satisfaction.

Yet the trip to Marseille, with so much at stake — they could finish the night top, second or third in Group D — comes at an anxious time.

“Every time we play a high-level team we struggle,” acknowledged Conte of the October run that featured significant injuries — Dejan Kulusevski and Richarlison are still recuperating — and defeats to Arsenal, Manchester United and Newcastle United as well as European points dropped against Frankfurt and Sporting.

Tottenham 1 Sporting 1: player ratings

“Sometimes it is frustrating,” Conte said after Spurs came back from 2-0 down to beat Bournemouth 3-2 at the weekend. “You see your team [going] up and down, up and down. We have to try to find stability.”

That wish is echoed by OM’s Tudor, a teammate of Conte’s in the Juventus sides of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and, like Conte, much praised for his work at the beginning of this season.

The French club — peppered with enough former Arsenal players in Alexis Sanchez, Matteo Guendouzi, Saeed Kolasinac and Nuno Tavares to give Tuesday’s confrontation a hint of North London derby — dropped just four points in their first nine, unbeaten Ligue 1 games. October has been brutal, however, yielding just one league point from a possible 12.

Last week’s 2-1 loss in Frankfurt left OM bottom of Champions Group D, a point behind Sporting, in second, and Frankfurt, third, but still, tantalisingly, just a win away from leapfrogging top-placed Spurs.

Concede the first goal, as Tottenham have in their last four matches, and Conte will be wishing he was on the touchline, the engaged and vocal galvaniser of the last 12 months, rather than confined to a faraway seat in the stands.

Updated: November 01, 2022, 2:37 AM
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