In a way it was just another Tottenham performance. He played poorly in the first half, improved in the second and ended up getting the result he needed. He may not have been convincing at the Velodrome against Marseille on Tuesday, but a 2-1 death toll win took him to the Champions League knockout stages as a group winner. And in a season that continues to threaten to unravel, that’s no mean achievement.

But it is still very difficult to understand what all this means. Are Spurs really good? We will probably have to come back to it after the World Cup. Tottenham’s season has been oddly stop-start. The signings of Richarlison, Yves Bissouma and Ivan Perišić, added to the return to form towards the end of last season, had brought optimism that there could be, if not a serious title challenge, at least a comfortable qualification for the Champions League and maybe a deep run in the competition.

But domestic defeats to Arsenal, Manchester United and Newcastle revealed the limits of the team. When Dejan Kulesevski isn’t around, Spurs struggle to bridge the gap between the front and back of the team, with no one consistently impressing at winger. At the same time, Antonio Conte’s football seems to have become increasingly reactive; even when Spurs have won, they have rarely been impressive.

However, they are still third in the championship. If they can regain their cohesion, they are well placed. There is a theory that Conte prepared the physical training to peak in February. Others roughly level with Tottenham in the Premier League have also had problems. But the Champions League, which could have brought relief, only brought more frustration, further proof of the lack of balance and conviction of the workforce.

Conte’s record in the Champions League, certainly compared to his other achievements, is mediocre. He took Juventus to the quarter-finals in 2012-13, but only one of his other four Champions League campaigns before this season had progressed beyond the group stage. As always, it’s possible to point to individual excuses, reasons why things went wrong, but the big picture isn’t good.

This season, the problem is clear: not enough goals in the first half. It was only in the home game against Eintracht Frankfurt that Tottenham scored before half-time. Too often he has relied on late rallies like the one produced against Sporting last week when Harry Kane saw what looked like a late winner ruled out for offside. Conte’s protests against the decision earned him a red card and forced him to be confined to the stands for Tuesday’s game in Marseille.

Tottenham rallied to top their Champions League group by beating Marseille.

Once again, Spurs simply couldn’t start in the first half. Marseille dominated the ball and, with Kane and Son Heung-min isolated, there were long periods when Spurs simply couldn’t get out of their own half. A bad situation was made even worse when Son was sent off after 29 minutes after taking a shoulder to the head of Chancel Mbemba. Eventually the pressure became intolerable and, after Hugo Lloris made saves from Alexis Sanchez and Jordan Veretout, Marseille took the lead in added time in the first half with a Mbemba header from a corner.

But as so often this season, Spurs improved significantly after the break. Emerson Royal replaced Ryan Sessegnon, and Tottenham, with Kane and Rodrigo Bentancur in the forefront, began to take a few more risks and progress further up the pitch. There had been some half chances when Kane was fouled by Mateo Guendouzi down the left nine minutes into the second half. Perišić whipped in a perfect cross, and Clement Lenglet’s unlikely figure twisted a header in his first goal since December 2020.

With Marseille forced to try and force things, Tottenham looked increasingly dangerous at the break, raising the inevitable question of why Spurs always had to wait until they were late before starting to compete. Pierre-Emile Højbjerg fired a late shot against the bar that would have sealed Tottenham’s progress but Sead Kolašinac, three minutes from time, almost inconceivably placed a free header wide wide.

In the end, Tottenham won it, with Kane freeing Højbjerg to slam into a spectacular finish in the dying seconds as Marseille fired all the way forward. This not only confirmed a place in the knockout stage, but it also meant that Spurs overtook Eintracht Frankfurt, who had also come from behind to beat Sporting, to top the group and ensure a theoretically greater tie. easy in the last 16. for its French opponent, knocked Marseille out of Europe altogether.) There is room for much improvement, but progress is progress.

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