Tottenham’s Conference League tale of disaster awaits its latest twist | David Hytner
Even now, at this distance, the video retains all of its shock value; the dark comedy mixing seamlessly with the gloating. Tottenham had lost 1-0 at Paços de Ferreira on 19 August in the first leg of the Europa Conference League play-off and it was the prompt for the Portuguese club to get trolling. Again.
After the draw was made, Paços had uploaded a clip of two of their fans discussing the meeting with a London giant. Which one was it? They ran through all of the possibles, deliberately ignoring Spurs, until they were informed that it was indeed them. “Oh, these guys … We can easily beat Tottenham,” they say, before clinking their beer bottles together.
Now, with the victory theirs, came that TikTok video. It was not delivered by the club this time, rather endorsed by them with a follow-up comment. It showed the Paços mascot, a giant beaver, gyrating suggestively behind its Spurs counterpart, a giant cockerel, as a supporter did likewise to the right of them.
Needless to say, Spurs’s haters in London and beyond loved that and it rather set the tone for the club’s participation in Uefa’s new third-tier competition. Spurs would beat Paços 3-0 in the return to qualify for the group stage but they have not truly been able to win so far, only to avoid humiliation at best and run headlong into its grip at worst. As they have done pretty much whenever they have travelled away from home.
Since that famous game, Paços have won only once all season and, if Spurs’s 2-2 draw at Rennes was creditable enough, the occasion was memorable mainly for the sight of Harry Kane leading out the team – shortly after failing to get the transfer he wanted to Manchester City. It was a meme trigger. Wasn’t Kane supposed to be playing Champions League football?
Then there have been the defeats at Vitesse and NS Mura, the former after the then manager, Nuno Espírito Santo, left his first XI in London to rest for the weekend Premier League fixture at West Ham; the latter at the hands of the Slovenian minnows – the lowest-ranked team in the group phase – was one of the most embarrassing nights in Spurs’s history. It sparked an angry reaction from Nuno’s successor, Antonio Conte, who said he now understood the extent of the challenge that faced him.
Criticism from inside and outside the club has been a recurring theme. The midfielder Harry Winks suggested that Nuno’s selection at Vitesse had been divisive. “We’re meant to be a team … everybody should be fighting for weekend games and it’s difficult,” he said. “Motivation should be everybody fighting for the same cause.”
And now Spurs find themselves under fire from Rennes and even Vitesse for their request that Thursday night’s final group tie at home to Rennes be postponed as they reel from the impact of a Covid outbreak, which has forced them to close the first-team area of the training ground.
Rennes, who have already topped Group G, raged about being made to travel and then not play, muttering about the impression that Tottenham were still just about above the Uefa threshold of having 13 available, senior players (including one goalkeeper).
Meanwhile Vitesse, who are fighting for second place and a spot in a two-legged play-off to reach the last 16, were unhappy that they had to play on Thursday night at home to Mura while their rivals waited. It was because goal difference stood to be a separating factor between the teams. Vitesse pointed out that Spurs sent a B team to play them. Why could they not do so against Rennes?
To repeat, Spurs have been ravaged by a frightening illness, turfed out of their place of work, wracked by uncertainty and yet they continue to absorb pot-shots.
The club’s Conference League campaign has been a disaster from the start and yet it is not over. But for a quirk of fate, it would have been after Vitesse won 3-1 at home to Mura. Spurs’s away result against the Dutch club was a 1-0 loss before they beat them 3-2 at home, meaning that they are tied on the initial head-to-head tiebreaker in terms of points, goal difference and goals scored.
Previously, Vitesse’s greater number of away goals in the matches between the clubs would have given them the edge but Uefa scrapped that rule this season and it now moves on to goal difference in all of the group games.
The upshot of Vitesse’s margin of victory over Mura was that Spurs need a win by any scoreline when they play the rearranged Rennes match. In other words, they remain in the driving seat to advance in the competition that they did not want to enter; to add anywhere up to nine extra games to the second-half of their season – at a time when Conte intends to push for a top-four league finish.
Never mind the strangely discombobulating Thursday-Sunday cycle, how much value would there be in winning the Conference League? To many onlookers, it has been written in the stars that Spurs will reach the final and face Roma, who are managed by their former manager, José Mourinho. On all the available evidence, they ought to be careful what they wish for.