The end of Spurs’ European journey proves as pathetic as it was inevitable
Is this what the end looks like? A sigh, a shrug, a trudge home and the resignation that your instincts were right all along. Tottenham Hotspur are out of the Champions League. Antonio Conte has likely just taken charge of his final European fixture at Spurs. Yet both of these truths will be met with the briefest of nods of indifference, as everyone knows by now that we’ve been heading this way for some time. Like Cristian Romero’s self-destructive second yellow card, it was inevitable.
This is what supporting Tottenham has been like in recent weeks and if there is the slimmest of positives to take from this pathetic exit to AC Milan, it is that this muddled spell could finally now be over. The illusion that Conte could have been convinced into staying beyond this season has been shattered by the general understanding that he will leave at the end of his contract. Now, after how meekly Spurs surrendered their last chance of winning a trophy under the Italian, it may be better for all parties to part ways as soon as possible.
It’s a bit depressing, though, to stop and think that this is the result of what Spurs worked so hard to achieve last season, from their initial revival under Conte, that victory over Arsenal, and the promise that came with a team that looked to be on the march. It is gloomy to compare the vibrancy of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min to now, and this collection of grey, washed-out bodies shuffling through the damp.
Tottenham could now go and do what they do. They play Nottingham Forest, Southampton and Everton in their next three games. Their season has been propped up by picking up these wins and fourth place might still be achievable if they are able to put a final run together. The question, though, is for what? This match against Milan was the biggest of their season. This is what mattered. Away to Sheffield United in the FA Cup fifth round last week, that mattered.
Those two defeats now spell the end for Conte, whose return to the touchline signalled at least a glimmer of hope, as did the fact that Milan only held a lead from the first leg.
And there Conte stood, back in position. He had defied doctor’s orders to return to work early after undergoing gallbladder surgery, following a time in which he had soldiered on through the loss of three close friends over the course of the past year. Through that, there can be no question that he has given his life to Spurs, but it said it all that his return to the touchline was not even greeted by a chorus of his name.
Conte, though, was still difficult to look away from. Despite the rumours, he remained fully engaged: pointing, marching, directing Ivan Perisic as if he was on a string, barking into the ear of the fourth official. After four games away, it only took Conte 22 minutes to be booked, following his reaction to Clement Lenglet’s yellow card midway through the first half. This, however, seemed over the top; was it a performance all along?
And the feeling from the Tottenham fans was one that suggested they were no longer interested to watch. Relationships are built on trust and the trust here is gone, while there is also a fair case to be made that if Conte needed to convince the Spurs fans that they should keep him, he had lost that too.
How else could you explain the sense of apathy that hung heavy in the chill of the London air like a fine mist, even as this tie teetered on the edge? This was for a place in the Champions League quarter final, but the bar here has fallen so low that the idea of just staying in the tie and not allowing Milan to double their advantage seemed fine.
For so long, Tottenham just meandered, repeating the same patterns. Romero was booked after sliding in for a challenge he was never going to win. Son was a shadow, Dejan Kulusevski was left with so much space, often created by Kane, but while being so short on confidence. There was a brief crackle of excitement at the idea of something new when Pedro Porro emerged from the bench and stood over a free kick: it was fired straight into the wall.
Whatever Tottenham were doing was helped by Milan, who are through without ever flickering. The fine, misty rain that danced above the surface should have led to a quick contest played on sharp margins, but it was an indicator of the level of both these teams that it played out like a group stage fixture. One of the few things Spurs did do right was in fouling Rafael Leao on the turn. Without the excellent Portuguese in full flight, Stefano Pioli’s side offered little.
It’s who Tottenham have been knocked out by, though, and with barely a whimper. The scoreline summed it up; going into a second leg at home losing 1-0 only to draw 0-0, rather reflects that something is badly missing. There was some anger at the end: a flash of boos, but without the energy to hold it for long. That energy may now, finally, have slipped away.