Antonio Conte and Spurs have an unbalanced relationship but the Champions League is a great leveller; that Sporting draw was a rough example.
The initial reaction was one of immense frustration but ultimately it was entirely befitting of the evening. Having watched the previous stodgy, laboured and fetid 75 minutes, a nappy change only a four-month-old could time to such imperfection, requiring more hands than only one attentive parent is able to provide, meant Tottenham’s equaliser was missed.
It was an outcome entirely in keeping with the utter arsewater that preceded it. Even after watching a replay of Rodrigo Bentancur’s header it was difficult to fathom Tottenham scoring. Or shooting. Or passing accurately to a teammate.
That opening half was lamentable, ending as it did in two suitable ways. First, Harry Kane wisely purchased a free-kick from Manuel Ugarte in a presentable area, roughly 35 yards out. The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium waited with a nervous anticipation. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg played it short to Bentancur, who redirected the ball into Heung-min Son’s path. The South Korean slipped, Sporting cleared the ball and the kinetic energy from the subsequent collective groan could have powered the whole country for a good few hours.
Then even the most predictable smattering of boos was curtailed because no-one heard referee Danny Makkelie’s whistle, removing the sting from what promised to be a vitriolic reaction to the fare served up.
Tottenham had been rank. Bar a couple of delightfully crisp, one-touch passing moves which achieved little more than slightly titillating Jermaine Jenas on co-commentary, they were bereft of ideas and confidence. There was no discernible plan, a distinct lack of movement outside of a rigid and unresponsive system, and a notable preference for safety over risk.
The indigestible chaser to that stultifying cocktail was the sight of Marcus Edwards playing a one-two on the halfway line, dancing away from Hojbjerg and advancing uncontested to the edge of the Tottenham area before firing a well-placed but eminently saveable shot past Hugo Lloris.
An improvement followed from the hosts in the second half but it would have difficult not to raise that particular bar. The deployment of Cristian Romero as a striker alongside Kane was a welcome injection of unadulterated chaos, pierced only when the Argentinean took it upon himself to live out the dream of every Tottenham fan between 2013 and 2015 by needlessly clattering Paulinho.
The Sporting centre-forward and mere namesake of the Barcelona and Guangzhou Evergrande schemer soon dusted himself off but Romero’s sacrifice – a yellow card inevitably followed – instigated an engrossing closing sprint.
There were 13 shots from that point onwards, the last half-hour or so of a ridiculous game in a farcical Champions League group reduced to a final round slugfest between two untrained heavyweights.
Bentancur wiped out Sporting’s lead. Eric Dier missed two massive chances. Bryan Gil made an impressive cameo. Lloris tried to put a little extra spice on his heatmap by chasing Arthur Gomes to the corner flag for no apparent reason, only to miss the tackle and have to rush back to his net before the offside flag was finally raised.
His faintly justifiable protestations at such a late decision being made was the starter to a main of utter VAR nonsense. The delirium of Kane’s apparent winner, slamming home Emerson Royal’s back-post knockdown, was a distant memory by the time it was ruled out for some vague infringement almost four minutes later.
Antonio Conte was shown a red card in the ensuing bedlam. The Champions League still feels like the ultimate equaliser in what is otherwise a deeply unbalanced relationship between a settling coach with an elite reputation and a punching club with grand aspirations but little idea of how to realise them. The Italian’s record in the competition is now 14 wins, 13 draws and 12 defeats; Spurs have reached the knockout stages more recently.
Their European fate this season remains uncertain, still dependent on avoiding defeat at Marseille next week in a game Conte would ideally hope to have rendered a dead-rubber long ago. It should be an easy enough assignment – like taking candy from a baby, perhaps – but with Spurs and Conte it is never straightforward.