Conte’s task to lift his fallen Spurs stars

    Conte, whose task it is to reboot and revive his Tottenham Hotspur squad after their various setbacks in Qatar, knows how it feels to return from an international tournament burning with a sense of what might have been.He was there, at the Rose Bowl in 1994, when Italy lost on penalties in the World Cup final. Conte, an unused substitute, was watching on as Roberto Baggio blazed over, handing the cup to Brazil.“At the time, me and him were both from Juventus,” Conte said. “He was my teammate so for sure, I remember very well the way he lived that moment. It was incredible for him to put the ball over, we are talking about a real specialist at taking penalties. But this is another example that the best players take the responsibility and when you take responsibility, you can miss.“I didn’t play and I was never in the list of the players to kick the penalty. But I have seen important players like Baggio, [Alessandro] Del Piero and now Harry miss important penalties. It’s unpredictable because when players like Harry and Baggio take a penalty, there is less than 1 per cent chance they miss. But it happened. You have to put it outside of your mind and restart.”Tottenham are awaiting the return of Cristian Romero after the defender triumphed with Argentina but Conte has more players to rejuvenate than most. After prevailing over Kane, Hugo Lloris and France fell at the final hurdle against Argentina. After an excellent start to the tournament, Richarlison tore his hamstring playing for Brazil. Ivan Perisic’s Croatia enjoyed a strong run, only to be blown away by Argentina in the semi-finals while Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (Denmark), Son Heung-min (South Korea) and Pape Matar Sarr (Senegal) all went home early. Eric Dier hardly played for England. Ben Davies and Rodrigo Bentancur both picked up knocks on Wales and Uruguay duty respectively.As ever, Conte believes the best way to support his players is to be straight with them. “In my experience as a player, when negative situations happen, you know what happened. It’s not so important to find people to tell you, ‘Oh don’t worry,’ ” Conte said.“When you play at this level you have to be a strong person. You have to try to address negative events in the right way. Harry is a strong person. I was a strong person when I was a player. For me it’s better not to speak, not to try and justify. They know the way to respond.”Conte will hope the first response is a victory over Brentford at the Gtech Community Stadium today (Monday), with Tottenham hoping to leave behind some patchy performances before the World Cup, when they were beaten by Manchester United, Newcastle United and Liverpool, as well as Nottingham Forest in the Carabao Cup.At times, Conte’s side lacked creativity and purpose. They also developed a habit for slow starts and needed stirring comebacks to overcome Leeds United, Marseilles and Bournemouth.And yet zoom out and Spurs can also be relatively pleased with their position. They sit fourth in the Premier League table, three points behind Manchester City in second, albeit having played a game more. They are through to the last 16 of the Champions League and have a winnable tie to come against AC Milan.Dejan Kulusevski is fit again and should be fresh as one of those who didn’t play at the World Cup. With the pressures of Qatar behind him, perhaps Son will rediscover his best form in the second half of the season.There is a chance now to push on, to find more consistency and conviction, but Conte also knows how quickly things could unravel. He notes Tottenham’s position ahead of Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United and sees not so much an advantage, but a powerful chasing pack.“The season will be really difficult because you can see the table: in first to fourth place, there is no United, Liverpool or Chelsea,” the Spurs head coach said. “For this reason, the players have to be really focused.”And bubbling under the surface is still the uncertainty over Conte’s future. There was optimism before the World Cup that the Italian would sign a longer-term contract during the break, which would have reassured players such as Kane and given the whole club a considerable lift ahead of the restart.An agreement, though, is yet to be found, raising the possibility that Conte will again keep his options open until the summer draws near as he holds most of the cards. Despite some criticism of the style, he has the support of the fans after last season’s surge into the top four and the backing of key players in the dressing room. He is in no rush to extend and will want to see evidence of Tottenham’s ambition in the January transfer window before he does.For the club, Conte is still regarded as the fastest route to a trophy and, crucially, their best chance of persuading Kane to extend his contract, which expires in 2024 and therefore becomes a pressing issue in the summer. Kane can expect a rousing reception from the Spurs fans at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on New Year’s Day, when his team host Aston Villa.And what about Lloris? Might there be some awkwardness between Kane and the goalkeeper who effectively ended his World Cup dream? “Impossible,” Conte said. “I am sure Hugo on one side was really happy but on the other side felt really sorry for Harry. I am sure because we’re talking about two really good, sensible guys. In this type of game, one dies and the other lives. No second chances.”– The Times

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