Spurs and Milan search for solutions as injuries and poor form take toll | David Hytner

Antonio Conte is up against Stefano Pioli in what could be a season-defining Champions League last-16 first leg on Tuesday

As Antonio Conte endures all manner of agonies – starting with his own health and taking in that of his Tottenham team, particularly the midfield, which is in crisis before Tuesday night’s Champions League last-16, first leg against Milan – he can console himself with one thought. His opposite number, Stefano Pioli, may well have it even worse.

The tie pits the previous two Serie A champion managers in opposition; Pioli led a youthful Milan to a surprise triumph last season, after Conte won with their city rivals, Internazionale, in 2020-21. Conte can expect a hostile reception on his return to San Siro; the ultras do not care that he is recovering from the emergency removal of his gallbladder on the Wednesday before last.

At least Pioli is in decent physical shape because pretty much everything else seems to have gone wrong for him and his team since the restart of Italian football after the World Cup. Milan resumed with a win at Salernitana on 4 January before drawing two and losing three in Serie A, going out of the Italian Cup at home to Torino and being beaten 3-0 by Inter in the Italian Super Cup.

Mercifully for Pioli, they tasted victory again last Friday, edging past Torino in the league – a game that was all about the points, forget the ugliness of the performance. It was an essential tonic before the visit of Spurs. But Milan are 18 points behind the runaway leaders, Napoli, their title defence in tatters, and the natives are restless, with Pioli in their cross hairs.

There is a school of thought that Pioli and his players overachieved to an almost indecent degree last season, getting on a roll and harnessing inexorable momentum, living a dream. This time, with the scrutiny greater, their cover of low-profile underdogs blown, it has gone hard the other way and they have struggled. Perhaps, their thinking that they are the best has been a problem.

Pioli has switched to a back three in Milan’s past two games – he had previously been a back four devotee – a move that was criticised by one of his admirers, the great Arrigo Sacchi, and he has heard rumours of trouble in the dressing room. Davide Calabria and Theo Hernandez posted a picture of them boxing with each other in a humorous attempt to disprove the whispers.

Milan (3-4-2-1): Tatarusanu; Kalulu, Kjær, Tomori; Saelemaekers, Tonali, Krunic, Hernandez; Díaz, Leão; Giroud.

Tottenham (3-4-3): Forster; Romero, Dier, Lenglet; Emerson, Skipp, Sarr, Perisic; Kulusevski, Kane, Son.

Then there has been the sideshow around the star player, Rafael Leão, who remains in a contractual standoff; his terms expire in 2024. Pioli restored him to the XI against Torino, having dropped him in the two matches before – including the league defeat against Inter.

Pioli has sorely missed the injured goalkeeper Mike Maignan – a star of the title-winning campaign – and the full-back Alessandro Florenzi is a long-term casualty. Ismaël Bennacer, the former Arsenal academy player, is not expected to be fit, and his absence tends to be bad news for his midfield partner, Sandro Tonali. Fikayo Tomori could return from a hip injury in defence.

Conte has taken numerous punches in the past week or so, when he has been at a low ebb, with his preparations further clouded by Monday’s confirmation that Rodrigo Bentancur ruptured an anterior cruciate knee ligament in Saturday’s 4-1 loss at Leicester; he will undergo surgery and miss the rest of the season.

The Tottenham manager, Antonio Conte, instructs Matt Doherty as Arsenal’s Gabriel Martinelli looks on.
Antonio Conte is back in the Tottenham dugout after recovering from the emergency removal of his gallbladder. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

It was the last thing that Conte needed, with Pierre-Emile Højbjerg suspended for the Milan tie and Yves Bissouma out long term after ankle surgery last Friday. It leaves Conte with only two specialist central midfielders for San Siro – Pape Matar Sarr and Oliver Skipp.

The former, just 20 years old, has never played in the Champions League, although he did feature for Senegal at the World Cup; he came on in the last-16 loss to England. Skipp, meanwhile, has never started a Champions League tie, his four appearances coming as a substitute, and it has been difficult to shake the feeling that Conte does not fully trust him. Conte, who was exasperated at Skipp’s pelvic injury, has started him only five times in all competitions this season.

The manager, who has also lost his captain and goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris, to a knee problem, meaning a run in the team for the understudy, Fraser Forster, and the full-back Ryan Sessegnon to a hamstring injury, had to see the parallel between the soul-destroying defeat at Leicester and the low point of last season for him – the loss at Burnley.

Both results had followed victories over Manchester City, the sublime then the ridiculous, and everybody remembers Conte’s outburst after Burnley when it sounded as if he was about to quit. He did not attend the press conference after Leicester, partly because he did not have it in him, his assistant, Cristian Stellini, saying that “Antonio feels the difference” after his gallbladder trauma. Conte’s mood cannot have been helped by a terrible debut from the January signing Pedro Porro.

Spurs’s inconsistency is maddening but despite it all, they remain fifth in the league, only two points off Newcastle in fourth, albeit having played an extra game. Moreover, they are a two-leg tie from the Champions League quarter-finals.

It can often feel that a top-four finish is the be-all and end-all at the club and football in Europe’s elite competition is certainly crucial to budgets. But the product of all of the hard work is a shot at the knockout rounds. The glory beckons now. Nothing other than this first leg matters. Conte has plenty of excuses. He needs to find solutions.


David Hytner in Milan

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