MARSEILLE, France : Tottenham Hotspur manager Antonio Conte usually patrols his technical area kicking every ball, barking out instructions and gesticulating at his players.
On Tuesday the Italian was forced to endure a tortuous night sitting in the stands at the Stade Velodrome as his team secured a 2-1 win that sent them into the Champions League last 16.
Conte was banished after his red card at the end of his side’s 1-1 draw with Sporting last week.
Perhaps it was better he was not close to the pitch in the first 45 minutes in Marseille as his players, who only needed to avoid defeat to go through from Group D, appeared to freeze and looked in danger of capitulation in the face of a siege.
Throughout their Champions League campaign, and also in many Premier League games this season, Tottenham have been desperately slow starters with passive tactics and a lack of energy.
It was the same again on Tuesday, yet as was the case against Sporting last week and in the home clash with Marseille, they were vastly-improved, almost unrecognisable, after the halftime interval.
Conte’s assistant Cristian Stellini struggled to explain what had happened in the first half but Clement Lenglet, whose 54th-minute equaliser turned the match, offered a theory.
“We didn’t play well in the first half maybe because we didn’t know if we had to attack or defend and maybe it was not good to play this type of first half,” he said.
Stellini said Marseille had controlled the game in the first half but that “something changed” at halftime.
“In the second half something changed and we spoke a lot in the dressing room about the energy we need in the second half, about how we need to press them,” he said.
“In the first half we never did that. In the second this aspect changed and we played a fantastic second half. We need to try to play all 90 minutes at the same level.”
Asked for Conte’s reaction to yet another display of stark contrasts, Stellini said his colleague was “very tired”.
“He lived the game in the crowd, it’s not normal. Maybe he spent more energy in the stands than on the touchline,” he said.
Marseille, who appeared on course for the victory after Chancel Mbemba’s bullet header in first-half stoppage time, would have still made the Europa League as Group D’s third-placed team had they drawn.
But as the French club desperately sought a winner they were hit on the break in stoppage time and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s goal left them bottom of the group.
“On the pitch, we didn’t know (we were third in the group at 1-1). But on the bench, people knew. It’s a lack of communication. We were desperate to keep pushing to the end. It’s our mistake,” Mbemba said.
Tottenham’s joy at going through was tempered by a head injury to Son Heung-min which saw the South Korean substituted midway through the first half after a clash with Mbemba.
He looked groggy and could be a doubt for Tottenham’s home game with Liverpool on Sunday.
“We have to check on him tomorrow but Son felt better in the dressing room after the game and he was able to celebrate,” Stellini said. “We’re not sure if it is concussion yet. It was an injury to his face, his eye is swollen.”