The Champions League has rarely been a sanctuary for Antonio Conte, a manager with five domestic league titles to his name. With Spurs having lost three from five Premier League matches in October, reaching the knockouts might have bought a respite but the wiping of Harry Kane’s late winner after an endless VAR wait means Marseille must be negotiated in the final group game.
An early goal from Marcus Edwards, during a brilliant first-half display from the former Tottenham youngster, put Spurs in serious jeopardy, only for Rodrigo Bentancur to nod home 10 minutes from time as pressure bore down on Sporting. But just like Sunday’s disappointing loss to Newcastle, Tottenham could not find the late goal they required.
A manager who talks of needing three or four more windows to build a proper squad felt able to make six changes to his team from Sunday. Lucas Moura was making a first start of the season as the latest attempt to make up for Dejan Kulusevski’s absence. The returns of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Cristian Romero added experienced ballast to midfield and attack while Matt Doherty and Ivan Perisic were asked to supplement the attack from wing-back.
Ruben Amorim is a manager lately linked with vacancies at Aston Villa and Wolves, and who, in 2021, led Sporting to their first title in 19 years. Sporting’s late-arriving 2-0 win in September further burned his reputation though he has so far stayed loyal to a supporter base that had traveled to London in numbers and filled the north London sky with odorous pyrotechnics and guttural chants.
Playing for their own Champions League lives, Sporting had not come to sit back, and fed on Spurs fans’ anxiety after a chastening, deserved loss to Newcastle on Sunday. The runs of Enfield native Edwards from midfield and his ability to find space were troublesome from the start and another former Premier Leaguer in Sebastian Coates drifted the first real chance wide from a corner.
Tottenham’s first attacking flush did not arrive until after the 15th minute when Kane’s attempt to drill the ball across was almost deflected in by Sporting keeper Antonio Adán. But Sporting came yet closer and might have been ahead in the 20th minute when Pedro Porro’s cross found an unmarked Paulinho, only for the striker to lift the ball over.
It doesn’t matter. Within moments, Edwards had danced past Højbjerg’s desperate tackle, surged on and his low shot beat Hugo Lloris. A fine goal from a player whose renaissance is one of the most heartening stories of the European season but almost certainly a disappointment for the Frenchman in being beaten from that distance. Lloris was by no means alone in being under-par amid a poor, often shapeless first half from Tottenham and Son Heung-min’s slip to mess up a free-kick routine just about summed it up. Sporting even got the ball in the net again, only for Coates to be booked for clear handball.
Conte made no half-time changes, but Tottenham roused themselves as if their half-time oranges had been served with Italian invective. Soon enough, Højberg’s bustling run and cross forced a corner, and from that, after a penalty-box pinball session, Kane’s volley was saved well before Matt Doherty leant too far back on the rebound. The increasingly busy Adán had to save a Son shot before a yet better chance fell to Francisco Trincão, eleven of Wolves, who also could not keep his shot down.
The weight of pressure was still very much with Tottenham, with Sporting sitting deep, Edwards thrust to the margins and eventually subbed off. Moura dragged a shot wide, then Son claimed a penalty when Gonçalo Inácio had barely breathed on him. Desperation was taking hold, and Romero looked lucky to escape a red card for a raking, reckless-looking challenge on Paulinho.
Doherty, having forced a save from Adán with a left-foot volley, was subbed off for Bryan Gil, the tiny Spaniard an unlikely savior for a Conte team.
As the game entered its last 15 minutes, Spurs had four men up front, with Perisic also bombing on, leaving gaping holes at the back. Flavio Nazinho had two good chances to score with Hugo Lloris left unprotected.
Amorim sank to his knees when Bentancur believed in the equaliser, Sporting’s claims that Adán had been baulked coming to nothing. He had been the victim of his own poor positioning of him. It was Conte’s turn to hit the turf when Eric Dier headed two late chances wide and also when Son and Gil missed chances to leave it all on Marseille next Tuesday. When Kane’s ‘winner’ was ruled off for offside, a raging Conte was sent to the stand.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism