Antonio Conte has admitted that he is still short of full fitness after his emergency gallbladder surgery as he opened up on the emotional toll of a dramatic period, which has also seen his Tottenham team rocked by injuries.
Conte, who is preparing for Tuesday night’s Champions League last 16, first-leg tie against Milan at San Siro, underwent the operation to remove his gallbladder earlier this month, having been taken seriously ill.
The manager missed his team’s 1-0 home win over Manchester City in the Premier League the following Sunday but was back on the touchline for last Saturday’s 4-1 defeat at Leicester, when he was far less animated than usual.
Conte has lost four players during the period – the goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris (knee), the full-back, Ryan Sessegnon (hamstring), and the midfielders, Yves Bissouma (ankle surgery) and Rodrigo Bentancur (ACL surgery). With Pierre-Emile Højbjerg suspended for the first-leg against Milan, Conte has a selection crisis in midfield. He indicated that he would place his faith in the inexperienced duo of Oliver Skipp and Pape Matar Sarr.
“I’m feeling much better than before,” Conte said. “I’m still not 100% but I am recovering well. It was really difficult for me to stay far from the team because I have a sense of responsibility to stay with the players and breathe every situation. It was really painful. It was the first time for me to stay like this.
“It is very important for me to stay with the team and for us to stay together in what is a difficult moment. In the last period, we were not so lucky … three surgeries – me and two for the other players.”
Conte dismissed the notion that the centre-half, Eric Dier, would play as an emergency midfielder, talking up instead the claims of Skipp, 22, and Sarr, 20. Skipp has never started a Champions League game while Sarr has never played in the competition.
“I haven’t had time to think about this [Dier in midfield] … everything happened too fast,” Conte said. “We have the solution in our house with the two young players, with Skippy and Pape Sarr.”
Conte was horrified with the performance at Leicester, especially as it had followed the win over City – the best result of his team’s season – and he said that his players were struggling to cope with the relentless pressure.
“We are lacking stability,” Conte said. “It’s very difficult to stay focused all the time. Playing under pressure all the time is good for some players and bad for others. Sometimes players feel motivated and sometimes players feel so under pressure they cannot perform, they collapse under the pressure.
“The pressure is different between Italy and England. In Italy, you speak about football from Monday and you finish on a Sunday. They put a lot of pressure. You’re born in this way and you grow with this pressure. In England, there is an atmosphere that brings you to enjoy football without a lot of pressure because football is a sport. In Italy, it is sometimes a war between the fans and the teams. This is the main difference.”