Furious Conte was convinced that VAR would not have been bold enough to disallow Harry Kane’s stoppage-time goal against Sporting Lisbon last week if Spurs were a “top team” – by which he meant a side like Real Madrid or Liverpool, you know how to win this race.
Had the decision gone in favor of Spurs, they would have already reached the last 16 as group winners and tonight’s game here in Marseille would be a welcome one.
Instead, the occasion will go a long way in determining whether their first half of the season was a success or a failure, and even the colorful perception of Conte’s performance in his first year at the club.
Amidst all the focus on his tactics, rotation and game management as Conte celebrates the anniversary of his appointment, he is still working to change the bigger fundamentals about the mentality of his players as well as the way the club conducts itself .
The Italian was used to making big decisions with Juventus, Chelsea and Inter Milan and wants his players and managers to be more focused.
“I hope the club understands [the damage caused by VAR] and then in the right situation they also talk to the people they need to talk to, because otherwise it’s just the manager talking,” he said after the Sporting game. I think the club needs to be strong because this situation creates big, big damage.
Saturday’s win over Bournemouth was further proof that Conte is building a side with courage, but after the game he admitted he was still baffled by how easily his players lost confidence and urged them to be more “nasty”.
Conte is not the first Spurs manager to sense an undercurrent of instability in his squad. When Mauricio Pochettino arrived at the club in the summer of 2014, he was surprised to find a group already anxious about visiting rivals West Ham on the opening day of the season.
The Argentine made great strides towards changing the mentality at the club, but his successor Jose Mourinho still thought his players were too “nice” – another word used by Conte at Bournemouth.
Conte has a different squad to both Pochettino and Mourinho, but there is still a sense that the final hurdles for Spurs to overcome are in the players’ heads.
There is still a sense that the final hurdles for Spurs to overcome are in the minds of the players
Kane, whose own single-minded desire to improve is not in doubt, also hinted at a mental block when asked to explain another slow start at the Vitality Stadium on Saturday. For the England captain, there is an element of fear that prevents the team from playing freely from the start.
“Physically we are very strong, which may explain why we often finish games strongly,” Kane said. “And mentally I think when the players are free and we have nothing to lose, we play better – we get more people forward and keep the pressure on in the opposition half.
“That’s what happened against Sporting in midweek and at Bournemouth it worked out in the end. We’ve kept knocking on the door and luckily we’re getting through it, but it’s something we’ll need to improve on if we want to stay top of the table for the rest of the season.”
It will be particularly tempting to start tonight’s game with caution because a draw will ensure Spurs progress, possibly as group winners, but they struggle to be effective with the handbrake on. Defeat would see them relegated to the Europa League.
The sense that this game will be primarily a test of Spurs’ character is heightened because Conte will not be able to rally his players from the touchline or the dressing room after being sent off for going into the field of play after Kane’s goal was disallowed on Wednesday.
Back in January, the head coach revealed that he occasionally tries to be more relaxed on the sidelines as part of a process to teach his players to take responsibility on the field.
“Sometimes I have to sit back and let my players make the best decision and face the game during the tough times,” he said. “Part of the process is to improve their responsibility during the game.”
With Conte watching from the stands and his assistant Christian Stellini in the duo, the players’ progress in this area will be tested in the south of France, while his absence from the dressing room at half-time could be particularly important if Spurs fall behind at the interval, as they did in the last three games.
Still, there are few better places for Spurs to prove their mental mettle than under pressure at Marseille’s Stade Velodrome, which will be a cauldron of hostility tonight, even if one stand is closed by UEFA following problems with the crowd in their first game here against Eintracht Frankfurt.