Tottenham’s game of risk pays off with great show of character but comeback mentality may not go the distance

Tottenham completed another dramatic comeback in stoppage-time and passed a stern test of character as they booked a place in the Champions League knockouts last night.

If Saturday’s last-gasp win over Bournemouth was down to Spurs’ quality from the bench, this result felt above all like a victory for the mentality of Antonio Conte’s players.

Fairly or not, Spurs will not shake the tag of bottlers until they win something and the occasion had more than enough elements to suggest they might crumble under the pressure, from the lingering pain of Harry Kane’s disallowed winner against Sporting CP last week to the presence of three former Arsenal players in the Marseille XI.

More importantly, Spurs were missing key players and Conte himself — with the Italian banned from the touchline and dressing room — while the home fans created a ferociously hostile environment.

There was a booming atmosphere here inside the Stade Velodrome — even with one stand closed by UEFA for previous crowd trouble — and the Marseille ultras welcomed Spurs to the port city with two fabulous displays of fireworks outside their team hotel during the early hours of yesterday morning.

Initially, Spurs looked on course to wilt and they deservedly trailed to Chancel Mbemba’s header after an atrocious first-half display.

Watching from the stands and unable to communicate directly with the dressing room, Conte must have feared his dismal record in the Champions League was set to continue but, in his absence, his players rallied to another recovery.

Clement Lenglet headed home an equaliser 10 minutes after the interval and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg finally secured their spot in the last-16, and as group winners, with a fierce finish off the post with the last kick of the match.

Captain Hugo Lloris described the game as “psychological battle” and the victory was further evidence that Conte is building a squad with impressive mental fortitude, even if questions remain about their performances and the head coach’s own decisions.

This was the third consecutive match in which Spurs have recovered from behind, after the 3-2 win at the Vitality Stadium and last week’s draw with Sporting but the pattern is surely not sustainable for much longer.

Conte has insisted it is impossible for his players to maintain their intensity for a full 90 minutes given the relentlessness of the schedule and one possibility — hinted at by his assistant, Cristian Stellini — is that the slow starts are part of a strategy to conserve energy and beat the opponent in a 45-minute match.

 (Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty I)
(Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty I)

“The stadium was very hot in the first half and sometimes it is normal to give the possibility to the opponent to play, to use the energy you have in the second half,” said Stellini, who deputised for Conte during his ban.

“It could also be a strategy. We need to try to play all the 90 minutes in the same level.”

If playing at half-pace for the first 45 minutes is part of Conte’s grand plan for this half of the season, it is plainly a risky one and Spurs could have been punished by Marseille if former Arsenal player Sead Kolasinac had not missed a late sitter at 1-1.

More plausible is that Spurs were simply unsure of how to approach the first half, while knowing a draw would have been enough to guarantee qualification.

“We didn’t play well in the first half because we didn’t know if we had to attack or defend,” said Lenglet, who headed home Ivan Perisic’s free-kick.

Kane added: “I think it’s always hard to come away from home in a tough atmosphere knowing that a draw gets you through.

“It’s never easy to come out and go full throttle because you could end up being 2-0 down in 10 minutes and then you’re in a hole. We’ve got to find a balance between dropping and pressing.”

The result ensures that Spurs will be drawn against one of the runners-up from another group in the round-of-16 in February and March. Next up for Conte’s weary side is the visit of Liverpool on Sunday, before the midweek Carabao Cup third-round at Nottingham Forest and finally a home game against Leeds before they pause for the World Cup.

For all the talk about Spurs’ underwhelming performances in the first half of the season, they are now well-placed to go into the winter break in a position of strength, comfortably in the race for the top four and even the title, and preparing for a Champions League knockout game.