Football: Tottenham focus on saving season after Conte departure

Tottenham manager Antonio Conte questioned his players’ motivation and spirit and appeared to take a dig at the club’s hierarchy. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON – Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy admits the English Premier League club have a “fight” on their hands as they scramble to save their season after Antonio Conte’s turbulent reign came to an end.

The Italian’s departure appeared almost inevitable after his extraordinary post-match rant following a 3-3 draw at bottom club Southampton on March 18.

But Sunday’s divorce by “mutual agreement”, with just 10 league games remaining, is a gamble by the Spurs hierarchy, who are desperate to secure a place in the Champions League next season.

Tottenham are fourth in the Premier League table but are just two points ahead of Newcastle United having played two games more. Finishing in the top four guarantees entry into Europe’s elite club competition.

Cristian Stellini, Conte’s assistant at Spurs, will take charge for the rest of the campaign, with former midfielder Ryan Mason working as his deputy.

With the club out of all cup competitions, Stellini will be able to put all of his eggs in one basket.

“We have 10 Premier League games remaining and we have a fight on our hands for a Champions League place,” Levy said in a club statement issued late on Sunday.

“We all need to pull together. Everyone has to step up to ensure the highest possible finish for our club and amazing, loyal fans.”

The writing appeared to be on the wall for Conte when he tore into his “selfish” players after they let a 3-1 lead slip against Southampton, saying they did not want to play under pressure and criticising the club’s culture.

“Tottenham’s story is this – 20 years there is this owner (Levy) and they never won anything. Why?“ Conte had said. “The fault is only for the club, or for every manager that stays here. I have seen the managers that Tottenham had on the bench.

“It is time to change this situation if Tottenham want to change. If they want to continue this way, they can change the manager, a lot of managers, but the situation cannot change. Believe me.”

The 53-year-old’s contract was set to expire at the end of the season and he had remained coy over the prospect of extending his stay in north London.

During his 16-month reign, Conte portrayed Tottenham’s problems as beyond his control, subtly hinting at frustration with Levy’s transfer policy without explicitly condemning him in public.

But he was criticised by fans over his perceived conservative tactics, despite having impressive attacking riches at his disposal, including Harry Kane and Son Heung-min.

A total of 11 full-time managers have been appointed since Levy succeeded Alan Sugar as chairman in 2001 but the club have won just one trophy in that time – the 2008 League Cup.

Conte was widely regarded as a serial winner when he arrived in November 2021, having won league titles at Juventus, Chelsea and Inter Milan.

In his first season, he guided the club to an impressive top-four finish, coming from behind to pip north London rivals Arsenal to Champions League qualification.

He averaged 1.88 points per game in the Premier League with Spurs, the second-highest figure for any manager of the club with a minimum of 38 games in charge.

But he failed to bring silverware to hungry fans of Tottenham, considered one of the “Big Six” in English football.

Names linked with the job include former boss Mauricio Pochettino, who led the club to the 2019 Champions League final, Julian Nagelsmann, sacked by Bayern Munich last week, and former Barcelona and Spain boss Luis Enrique.

But for now Stellini is the man in the hot seat, with a clear, if unenviable task on his hands.

The Italian has enjoyed some notable successes in recent weeks while Conte was out of action following gall bladder surgery, overseeing wins over Manchester City and Chelsea.

Tottenham’s next game is at relegation-threatened Everton on Monday, before home matches against in-form Brighton & Hove Albion and struggling Bournemouth. But the end of April looks daunting, with successive games against Newcastle, Manchester United and Liverpool.

Off the field, Levy’s two decades in charge have turned Spurs into financial powerhouses, with a gleaming new stadium that is the envy of Europe.

But restless fans want trophies. Levy’s next decision could be his most important yet. AFP, REUTERS

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