Humbled by Tottenham's thrashing at Leicester, Antonio Conte faces an uncertain future as he leads his spluttering team into Tuesday's Champions League clash against AC Milan.
Conte is back in Italy for the round of 16 first leg match just two weeks after undergoing gallbladder surgery in his homeland and his return is likely to be just as uncomfortable as his previous visit. The Tottenham manager has looked increasingly unsettled this season and, with his contract expiring at the end of the campaign, it would be little surprise if he decided to quit the Premier League club in May.
Conte has expressed unhappiness at Tottenham's transfer dealings, while repeatedly making it clear he believes it is unrealistic to expect his team to compete with its big-spending Premier League rivals. Tottenham is still waiting for a first major trophy since 2008 and the team's dour displays under Conte has hardly convinced frustrated fans that he is the man to end the drought.
The nadir in Tottenham's spluttering season came in a 4-1 rout at Leicester on Saturday in Conte's return to the sidelines after his operation. It has been a week from hell for Tottenham since Harry Kane became the club's all-time leading scorer with the winner against Manchester City, a match Conte missed while recuperating.
Already rocked by an injury to French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris that will rule out the Tottenham captain for six weeks, Conte has also had to deal with injuries to Yves Bissouma, Ryan Sessegnon and Rodrigo Bentancur in the last seven days. In the circumstances, perhaps it wasn't surprising that Conte cut a subdued figure at Leicester, rarely rising from his seat on the bench in contrast to his usual animated personality. Conte's health problems have precluded him from speaking in public, which might be just as well after Tottenham's wretched capitulation.
'A long process.' The 53-year-old ceded media duties to his assistant Cristian Stellini, who bemoaned Tottenham's surrender.
"The team has to change something. Not only individually. It's about the desire," Stellini said. "There is not an explanation because if you know what happens, you can change this. It happened also last season when we beat Manchester City, then lost to Burnley. To be consistent is a long process, a mental process. You have to be better mentally, better in the approach."
Having Conte at less than 100 percent is not helping Tottenham find a way out of its predicament.
"We spoke before the game and during the game, but Antonio feels the difference. He takes care of his health, so he knows he has to be careful," Stellini said. "He wants to be back because he's our manager and with his passion he can transfer as well but he needs to be careful in this moment."
Fifth in the Premier League at present, Tottenham was fortunate that fourth-placed Newcastle could only draw at Bournemouth and sits just two points clear of Conte's men. Even so, Tottenham is far from certain to return to the Champions League next season. Failing to finish in the top four would raise questions about whether Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy would want to keep Conte even if the former Chelsea, Juventus and Inter Milan manager signals he wants to stay.
Against that troubled backdrop, making a long run in this season's Champions League could be the only way to soothe Tottenham's wounds.
© Agence France-Presse