Tottenham raise hope Antonio Conte can finish on a high as Spurs provide perfect response to difficult week
Tottenham provided the perfect response to their difficult week, albeit against the perfect opponents.
A 3-1 win over struggling Nottingham Forest eased the pressure on Antonio Conte and strengthened Spurs’ grip on fourth-place, as they opened up a six point gap to Liverpool, who lost 1-0 at Bournemouth earlier in the day.
By the time Jurgen Klopp’s side play next, at Manchester City on April 1, Spurs could be nine points clear if they also beat bottom-club Southampton next weekend.
That is why Daniel Levy decided to keep Conte in charge after Wednesday’s limp Champions League exit against AC Milan and this victory, sealed by Harry Kane’s double and Heung-min Son’s strike, will raise optimism that Spurs can return to the competition next term via another top-four finish.
Conte came out swinging at his press conference on the eve of the game and his fired-up reaction to all three goals suggested there is life in his expiring tenure yet. The Italian was particularly animated when Son’s smart finish just after the hour all but ended Forest’s chances of a comeback, the head coach roaring to his bench and punching the air in celebration.
What should have been a routine win was not free of blemishes, however, and Spurs had Fraser Forster to thank for keeping the scoreline comfortable, the goalkeeper saving a stoppage-time penalty from Andre Ayew after Joe Worrall had reduced the deficit with an 81st-minute header, following a misjudgement by the former England stopper.
Kane planted a trademark header across Keylor Navas to open the scoring in the 19th minute and doubled Spurs’ lead from the penalty spot before half-time after Richarlison was brought down by Worrall.
It was his first spot-kick since missing for England in the World Cup quarter-final, and cool as you like.
Richarlison, who returned to the XI despite his explosive comments om Wednesday night, had a first League goal for Spurs cruelly chalked off by the VAR for the most fractional offside inside four minutes. His emphatic finish suggested Conte’s comments on Friday, when the head coach agreed with the Brazilian’s assessment that he has had a "s***" season, may have lit a fire under the £60million signing.
Pedro Porro was involved in both Kane’s goals, setting up the first, and it was another promising display from Oliver Skipp in the middle of the park.
As good as Spurs were, though, they could not have asked for a more obliging opponent after their grim week.
Conte’s side were there for the taking but the Premier League’s worst away team offered next to nothing in the way of intensity, energy or attacking intent in the opening 45 minutes.
Steve Cooper’s side played the first period at walking pace, offering only the occasional threat in the way of hopeful balls towards isolated front-man Brennan Johnson. The damage was done by half-time, when Cooper made two attacking changes, including Ayew, which only played into Spurs’ hands, creating space for the front three.
Forest did look more threatening, though, with Forster saving from Johnson, Serge Aurier and sub Emmanuel Dennis before standing up to Ayew’s weak penalty.
They had only scored three away goals this season before today, so Spurs should probably have been more solid in the second half.
Conte’s side, though, can only beat what is in front of them, and they resisted being dragged down to Forest’s level in the first half, playing with an urgency which has often been missing this season to give themselves a cushion.
In the circumstances, they deserve credit for lifting themselves to a much-needed win, which will restore confidence for the run-in.
Every game now feels like a stay of execution for Conte given he is all but certain to leave the club when his contract is up at the end of the season but there is now, at least, more sense that he could last that long.
Conte tends to do his best work when his sides only have one game a week, after all.
Newcastle could still leapfrog Spurs if they win their three games in hand, starting at home to struggling Wolves on Sunday, but Levy and supporters, who were vocal in the second half, should now sense that something can be salvaged from this disappointing and underwhelming season.