Tottenham must give Antonio Conte what he asks — he’s earned it with Champions League berth
NORWICH, England — It is particularly apt that Tottenham’s two January signings — Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski — combined to score the opening goal in Sunday’s 5-0 win at Norwich City, securing Champions League qualification with the minimum of fuss.
Spurs had already dominated the opening exchanges when Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg lifted a 16th-minute pass for Bentancur to race in behind the Norwich … well, let’s generously call it a defence … to square a pass for Kulusevski to apply a simple finish.
The pair have had a transformative effect on Tottenham, particularly Kulusevski, who ends the campaign with 13 goal involvements (five goals, eight assists) from 18 Premier League appearances.
Liverpool winger Luis Diaz has rightly been hailed as a midseason masterstroke of a signing, but Kulusevski cannot be far behind, helping ease the burden on Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son, who was able to turn the second half into a personal pursuit of the Golden Boot with the match settled as a contest by half-time.
But more significantly, the success of those two acquisitions is first-hand evidence for chairman Daniel Levy as to why Spurs have to trust manager Antonio Conte’s judgement in the transfer market and back him with the six summer signings sources claim he has identified to turn Spurs into Premier League title challengers.
Significantly, Conte continues to stop short of committing himself fully to the club next season, citing once again a need to determine exactly what Tottenham’s intentions are before confirming he is staying on.
“I like to fight for something important, I like to fight to lift a trophy,” he said. “For me, this is a trophy and I am very happy. And then we will see.
“I always said to you at the end of the season, we speak with the club and find the best solution for me and for the club. Now I think for me, the club, the players it is good to have three, four, five days’ rest and then the mind will be very clear. You can consider the whole season.
“You have to be very calm before speaking because now [there are] a lot of emotions in my mind, my heart. For this reason it would be very good to rest and then have a good meeting with the club to find the best possible solution.”
The job Conte has done since succeeding Nuno Espirito Santo in November is remarkable. Spurs were ninth when he took over with 10 games played, but it has hardly been smooth sailing. Conte questioned his own worth when losing 1-0 at Burnley in late February, and by March 15, Spurs were back in eighth, six points behind Arsenal having played a game more.
Yet from that position, they won eight of their last 11 games in a finish that reflects both Conte’s ability to galvanise a group but also the growing influence of Kulusevski and Bentancur alongside Kane and Son, a quartet that Tottenham will now look to build around.
Spurs only needed a point at Carrow Road due to their superior goal difference over Arsenal and, given Norwich’s beleaguered state following relegation, only complacency or a bout of “Spursyness” could undo them here.
Yet there was nothing shaky about them at all. After Kulusevski opened the scoring, a defensive mix-up gifted Tottenham a second as Norwich goalkeeper Tim Krul passed the ball straight to Bentancur, who crossed for Kane to head home.
Norwich improved a little after halftime but by the time Kulusevski cut in on his left foot and bent a superb shot past Krul on 64 minutes, Spurs had already turned their attentions to Son’s personal mission.
A couple of agonising misses preceded a low 70th-minute finish that drew him level with Mohamed Salah before a fine curling effort from outside the box five minutes later briefly took him ahead on 23 goals.
Salah’s late intervention at Anfield meant the pair shared the prize, aided by the absence of almost any injury time at the end of the game with referee Chris Kavanagh keen to put Norwich out of their misery. Protests outside the ground over joint-majority shareholder Delia Smith’s stewardship of the club began shortly afterwards.
But Son’s individual pursuit was quickly rendered a footnote again as Conte celebrated with his players in front of a jubilant away end. Tottenham supporters arrived perhaps with a sense of trepidation but ended up in such comfort they could spend most of the game deriding their north London rivals, condemned to a season in the Europa League despite winning 5-1 against Everton.
While the Gunners will reflect on their decision to weaken their squad in January by allowing several players, including Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, to depart, Spurs can feel by contrast that their midseason strategy paid off. They also moved several players on with Dele Alli, Tanguy Ndombele, Giovani Lo Celso and Bryan Gil sent out, but with Kulusevski and Bentancur brought in to bolster the ranks.
“Don’t forget in January we made an important decision to try to improve the situation, and I think this season the mistakes were not a lot since November and for this reason now we are talking about Tottenham in the Champions League,” said Conte.
Having edged out Arsenal in the Champions League race, they can now build from a position of relative strength if they can match Conte’s ambition.
Tottenham’s chances of keeping Harry Kane at the club are also enhanced significantly by entry into Europe’s premier club competition, and the task of convincing prospective new signings this is a team going places will be much easier with this sense of momentum.
Among Conte’s various targets, Spurs are interested in signing Leicester City midfielder Youri Tielemans and Ivan Perisic, a veteran winger who has several free transfer options if he chooses to leave Inter Milan.
There are no guarantees, but Tottenham in the Champions League is a much more attractive proposition to both.
A track record of recent positive signings will help, too. In Kulusevski and Bentancur, Spurs have two ideal examples — and evidence of why Conte’s judgement is worth following.