Tottenham manager Antonio Conte is set to return to the bench for Wednesday's decisive Champions League showdown against AC Milan, but persistent questions over the Italian's future risk overshadowing the rest of the team's season.
Conte has missed the past four games as he recovered from gallbladder surgery in Italy with his assistant, Cristian Stellini, taking the reins. During his time away, Tottenham has shown the frustrating inconsistency that has affected the club since the Italian took over in November 2021. A pair of 2-0 wins against West Ham and Chelsea suggested Spurs was on course to clinch a top-four finish in the Premier League. But that optimism faded after a dismal 1-0 loss at second-tier Sheffield United in the FA Cup fifth round and a drab league defeat by the same scoreline at Wolves on Saturday.
Conte walked back into Tottenham's plush training complex this week to find a club still sitting in fourth place in the Premier League, but at risk of an anti-climactic end to the season, being hunted down by a rejuvenated Liverpool. The North London club has not won a major trophy since 2008 and even a coach of Conte's pedigree has been unable to break that long drought. The Italian has portrayed Tottenham's problems as beyond his control, subtly hinting at frustration with chairman Daniel Levy's transfer policy without explicitly condemning him in public. The 53-year-old is taking his share of the blame from fans tired of his conservative tactics.
'Massive boost.' Stellini winning three games during his time in charge, prior to the FA Cup defeat, led to speculation over what the future would look like without Conte. The former league winner at Chelsea, Inter Milan and Juventus has yet to sign an extension to a contract that expires at the end of this season and would surely be in demand from Serie A clubs if he became available. Even if Tottenham finishes in the top four to guarantee a return to the Champions League, it would not be a huge surprise if Conte and Levy parted ways.
Against that uncertain backdrop, Tottenham host seven-time European champion Milan in the second leg of the round of 16 matchup on Wednesday, looking to overturn a 1-0 deficit from the first meeting at the San Siro. Spurs need Conte to lift its spirits ahead of a defining night, which could serve as a springboard for an uplifting end to the season. Defender Ben Davies acknowledged the importance of having the team's manager back in charge.
"It's been a while now, but we have a huge game on Wednesday, and it is very important he is with us," he said.
Conte has sometimes cut a disgruntled figure on the touchline this season, but Stellini echoed Davies' hope that Tottenham can be revived by its manager's return.
"Antonio will be a massive boost for us until the end of the season," Stellini said. "It is important that Antonio is back."
© Agence France-Presse