The Champions League remains a cruel mistress for Antonio Conte. A manager with five domestic league titles to his name has still never been past the competition’s quarter-finals and just as he was celebrating Tottenham reaching this season’s knockout stage, the VAR gods intervened.
In the final seconds of time added on, the maniacal celebrations of scorer Harry Kane and his manager had matched each other, only for an interminable wait and a final judgment that Kane had been offside from Emerson Royal’s header just before knocking in the winner. It was all too much for Conte, his joy oscillating to blind rage. He was shown a red card amid chaotic, insurrectional scenes.
“I’m really upset,” said Conte, during his lengthy post-match diatribe. “I don’t see honesty in this decision. It create a big damage.”
“Of course we thought we’d won it, the way we celebrated,” said Matt Doherty. “I don’t really know what happened at the end.” He wasn’t alone in that. “It’s still in our hands,” said the Irishman, attempting a hopeful note amid such disappointment.
Whatever the discussion of VAR, Marseille next Tuesday must be negotiated for Spurs to progress. A horrible October, containing three Premier League defeats, continues. An early goal from Marcus Edwards during a brilliant first-half display from the former Tottenham youngster, put Spurs in jeopardy, only for Rodrigo Bentancur to nod home an equaliser. And for all Tottenham’s pressure, just as in Sunday’s loss to Newcastle, the goal they badly wanted did not come. There were again boos at full time, even if they were aimed at the referee, Danny Makkelie, and his colleagues.
With so many players struggling for form, Conte had made six changes. Lucas Moura was making a first start of the season in the latest attempt to make up for Dejan Kulusevski’s absence. Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Cristian Romero added experience to midfield and defence with Doherty and Ivan Perisic supplementing the attack from wing-back.
Ruben Amorim is a manager lately linked with vacancies at Aston Villa and Wolves. Sporting’s 2-0 win over Spurs in September and this dogged yet enterprising display will further burnish his reputation. His team’s supporter base had travelled to London in numbers and filled the north London sky with odorous pyrotechnics and guttural chants.
Playing for their own Champions League lives, Sporting did not come to sit back. In an open first half they fed on Spurs’ anxiety. Enfield-born Edwards’ mazy runs were troublesome from the very start. Pedro Porro’s cross found an unmarked Paulinho in the 20th minute, only for the striker to lift the ball over.
No matter. Within moments, Edwards had danced past Højbjerg’s desperate tackle and his low shot beat Hugo Lloris. A fine goal from a player whose renaissance is one of the most heartening stories of the European season but almost certainly a disappointment for the Frenchman in being beaten from that distance. Edwards attempted a non-celebration celebration but understandably failed.
“All my family and friends are here supporting me,” he said. “I wasn’t going to celebrate, but I couldn’t help myself. It took me a long time to get here.”
While the 23-year-old had enjoyed his big night out, his manager was urging caution. “He can be very good but he must improve,” said Amorim. “He must sustain his first half in the second half.” Thrust to the margins, Edwards was eventually subbed off.
Lloris’s mistake was reflective of a poor, shapeless first half from Tottenham. Their half-time oranges were clearly served with Italian invective. Soon enough, Højbjerg forced a corner, and from that, after a penalty-box pinball session, Kane’s volley was saved well before Doherty leant too far back on the rebound. The increasingly busy Antonio Adán next had to save a Son shot.
Despite Francisco Trincão missing a decent chance, the weight of pressure remained with Tottenham. Moura dragged a shot wide, then Son Heung-min claimed an unlikely penalty. Desperation was taking hold, and Romero was lucky to escape a red card for a reckless-looking challenge on Paulinho.
As the game entered its last 15, with Bryan Gil on for Matt Doherty, Spurs had four up front, gaping holes left at the back, giving Flávio Nazinho two good chances, with Lloris unprotected. Amorim sank to his knees as Bentancur nodded in the equaliser from Perisic’s corner but when Kane’s “winner’ was ruled out in the 98th minute, Conte’s agony would be yet greater. And visibly, audibly so.