Antonio Conte’s insipid approach falls flat again as Champions League exit leaves Tottenham in limbo
If this was to be Antonio Conte’s last real stand at Tottenham, what a limp way for the head coach to bow out.
Conte may plod on at Spurs until the end of the season, going through the motions as the club pushes for another top-four finish, but they are out of the Champions League after a flat 0-0 draw with AC Milan in the last-16 second leg, extinguishing the last spark in their dispiriting campaign.
In a fitting encapsulation of the cautious and uninspiring football which has characterised the side this season, Conte’s last major act on the night was to send on centre-back Davinson Sanchez for forward Dejan Kulusevski after Cristian Romero was dismissed in the 77th minute.
It was met by boos from a home crowd who had done their best to lift the hosts but were left to endure another pedestrian and predictable display in a season full of them.
What now for Conte, who has still won just one Champions League knockout tie in his career?
He is widely expected to leave the club when his contract is up in the summer and this result will cast major doubt on his chances of lasting that long, now that Spurs have crashed out of a second cup competition in the space of a week.
All that is left for Spurs is the final 12 League games under a head coach who has consistently refused to commit to the club and whose tactics are no longer exciting or effective. Spurs last won a game with Conte in charge on January 28, against Preston North End.
For the Italian to see out the campaign, he will have to keep Spurs in fourth and well-placed to return to this competition next season.
The 0-0 draw was not as bad as the 4-1 defeat to Leicester, Conte’s last match in the dugout, but Spurs were so flat and insipid in the first half, you genuinely wondered if the head coach and his players were aware they were 1-0 down from the first leg at the San Siro three weeks ago.
From the off, Conte’s selections and tactics were as predictable as ever, with Spurs attempting to adsorb pressure and launch quick transitions through Harry Kane - by far their standout player - despite Milan having no incentive to create the necessary space at the back.
The first half was notable only for bookings for Romero and Clement Lenglet, which would have ruled them out of the quarter-final first leg and spoke to the indiscipline in Spurs’ ranks. Having clattered Rafael Leao, Romero was deservedly sent off for taking out Theo Hernandez with 13 minutes remaining, dampening any chances of a comeback.
Characteristically, Spurs had raised the tempo at the start of the second period, which only begged the question -- for the umpteenth time this season -- of why they were not more adventurous from the off.
Their increased intensity served to encourage Milan, however, and Fraser Forster finished the night with two important saves, denying Brahim Diaz a second goal in the tie and later Olivier Giroud.
Leao also struck the post in stoppage time, as 10-man Spurs left gaps as they pushed for an equaliser.
The closest Spurs came to a goal which would have taken the tie to extra-time was a Kane header deep into stoppage-time, well-saved by Mike Maignan, while Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg also tested the goalkeeper and Sanchez had a penalty appeal waved away shortly after his controversial introduction.
The visitors were deserved winners in the end, with Diaz and particularly Leao a real handful for Spurs, and their defence, including Fikayo Tomori, untroubled by Kane, Kulusevski, Heung-min Son and later substitute Richarlison.
This is not, however, a vintage Milan side, far from it, and for Spurs to fail to score, nor muster more than a chance or two of real note over the course of the two games was another damning indictment of Conte’s approach.
The head coach’s future now feels even more uncertain than it was, while Spurs’ season is reduced to a scrap for fourth place, which few fans really care about.