Tottenham need revitalised Antonio Conte to stop season spiralling as mood darkens
Antonio Conte's first task on returning to work at Hotspur Way on Sunday was to lift the mood of his Tottenham players and staff.
Conte has not exactly walked back into a crisis - Spurs are still fourth and preparing for Wednesday's Champions League last-16 decider against AC Milan - but their season has been deflated by last week's FA Cup exit at Sheffield United, which was compounded by Saturday's defeat to Wolves.
Overturning a 1-0 deficit from the San Siro would restore a degree of optimism but there is an increasing risk of apathy setting in among supporters as Spurs drift through another season likely to end without silverware, and with little certainty over the futures of Conte, Harry Kane, Fabio Paratici or even the ownership.
The Cristian Stellini interregnum briefly promised to revitalise Spurs' stuttering and strange campaign but back-to-back defeats have raised further questions about everything from the board's ambition to the quality of the squad and Conte's tactics, selections and substitutions.
At Molineux, Spurs played well for an hour (although the bar has got progressively lower) but Stellini and Conte, who was watching from home and relaying instructions to the bench, failed to react to Julen Lopetegui's raft of changes before Adama Traore's late winner.
Conte is, in short, returning to a familiar raft of problems, many of which are of his own making. One question is whether Conte himself is changed by his convalescence, specifically if the period away has acted as a reset or altered his thinking in any way.
It is an open secret that Conte and Spurs are expected to part ways when his contract is up at the end of the season (if not before) and his spell at home in Italy, where he has been recovering from gallbladder surgery, may only have strengthened his desire to call time on the job.
Conte has lived in a hotel suite since joining Spurs in November 2021 and found it difficult being away from his wife and daughter in Turin, particularly during such a distressing season personally, which has included the loss of three close friends and his own sudden illness.
As he prepares for a charm offensive in front of the Italian media this week, it would be understandable if the 53-year-old wants to be permanently closer to home and, after his annus horribilis, few would begrudge Conte for citing personal factors for walking away in the summer.
On the other hand, has absence made the heart grow fonder? Watching from afar as Spurs roused themselves to wins over Manchester City, West Ham and Chelsea under Stellini, did Conte gain an increased appreciation of what he has?
Conte could take any job in Serie A but there are few non-Italian clubs more attractive than Spurs who genuinely would want him, and currently none in the Premier League.
If he wants to continue to pit his wits against the likes of Pep Guardiola, work with and against the world's best players and experience the atmospheres of big London derbies, Spurs is still the best place for him.
The bottom line is that only one of those scenarios, a changed or revitalised Conte, is likely to see Spurs make a success of the rest of the campaign.
His return may be enough to rouse his players to a comeback against Milan but he cannot continue to muddle through the run-in with the same tactics, the same attitude and the same reluctance to commit to the club.