Conte's continental failings laid bare ahead of Tottenham's Champions League return

By Sports Desk September 07, 2022

Tottenham are gearing up for their first Champions League campaign in three seasons with momentum on their side and expectation levels high.

A large part of that is down to head coach Antonio Conte, who guided Spurs back into Europe's elite club competition in his first half-season in charge of the north London club.

Conte boasts a CV that is the envy of many managers around the world, the Italian having won eight major trophies during his coaching career, including five top-level league titles in two countries.

But Conte's domestic success has not transferred onto the European stage, having exited the Champions League in the group stage more times than he has advanced, despite managing some of the continent's elite clubs.

Ahead of Tottenham's Group D opener against Marseille on Wednesday, in which Conte will become the fourth coach to take charge of more than one English club in the competition, Stats Perform looks at the 53-year-old's underwhelming record.

JUST ONE KNOCKOUT WIN

Tottenham will be the fourth side Conte has taken charge of in the Champions League after Juventus, Chelsea and Inter. He has managed 36 games with those three heavyweight sides but won just 12 for a 33 per cent win rate.

To put that into some context, that compares to a 65 per cent win rate in the Premier League (over a much larger sample of games) and 68 per cent win rate in Serie A.

Breaking down that European record further, Conte won six of his 16 matches as Juve boss in the competition and just three each with Chelsea and Inter across eight and 12 matches respectively.

Those victories with Juve, Inter and Chelsea, if you were wondering, came against Celtic (twice), Qarabag (twice), Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Borussia Monchengladbach, Chelsea, Copenhagen, Nordsjaelland, Shakhtar Donetsk and Slavia Prague.

Conte's best run in UEFA's elite club tournament remains his first campaign when taking Juve to the quarter-finals in the 2012-13 season, where his title winners were well beaten by Bayern Munich over two legs.

Remarkably, that season's 5-0 aggregate win over Celtic in the last 16 remains Conte's only knockout-stage success in the Champions League.

That was one of only two occasions in five attempts a Conte side has made it beyond the first round, in fact, the other instance being in the 2017-18 season when Chelsea finished second to Roma in the group and were then eliminated by Barcelona in the last 16.

Conte was unable to guide Juve out of the group stage in 2013-14, failing to finish ahead of Galatasaray for second place behind Real Madrid, and also fell at the first hurdle in successive seasons with Inter.

EXCUSES, EXCUSES

But exactly why has one of the best coaches of his generation struggled so badly when it comes to balancing domestic and European football?

One suggestion is that, like a lot of Italian coaches, Conte prioritises league titles over continental cups, but the Spurs boss laughed that idea off at a news conference on Tuesday and pointed to the success of compatriot Carlo Ancelotti, the winner of more European Cups than any other coach.

"Success in Europe with a trophy is important for every manager," Conte added when probed on his underwhelming Champions League record. "You know very well that it is not simple, not easy to lift a trophy in Europe and especially the Champions League. 

"It is important to be there and you have more probability if you are the coach of a team who expects to win. Two years ago, with Inter, we lost the final of the Europa League against Sevilla. For sure, in my heart, in my mind, in my ambition, there is the will to have success in Europe."

Conte did indeed reach the final of the Europa League with Inter in the 2019-20 season, but even that can be considered a disappointment as a much-fancied Nerazzurri lost to Sevilla in the final and were only in the competition by virtue of their early Champions League elimination.

Another theory, put forward by Conte himself, is that his squads simply have not had the depth to cope with demanding runs across multiple competitions. 

"Some important mistakes have been made at the planning stage; we can't play both the Champions League and Serie A with such a small squad," Conte said two years ago on the back of Inter's second successive group-stage exit.

"I'm tired of saying the same things over and over again. Perhaps the [club directors] could come over here and say something. I hope that this will help them understand a few things."

SIXTH TIME LUCKY WITH SPURS?

Passing the buck to those higher up is very much out of the Conte playbook, a classic ploy usually used to help get his way when the transfer window approaches.

But on the back of a busy few months of transfer activity at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, in which the Italian has been backed heavily, that excuse will surely not cut it with Daniel Levy and Co.

While Tottenham are not realistically expected to challenge for the Champions League trophy this term, failing to advance from a favourable group that contains Marseille, Eintracht Frankfurt and Sporting CP would be yet another blight on Conte's CV.

However, Conte may already be laying the foundations to cover his back should Spurs miss out on a place in the last 16, with the ex-Chelsea boss hitting out at the congested fixture list this side of the World Cup.

"Honestly, to see this schedule about Tottenham is incredible, it's crazy because we played three games in six days against Nottingham Forest, West Ham and Fulham," he added on Tuesday.

"Now we are playing after four days, but we are starting to play again three important games against Marseille in the Champions League, [Manchester] City away and Sporting Lisbon away in six days. I think maybe this is my first time in my career to see a schedule like this.

"I think in this situation we are unlucky, but I think in the future, and also I spoke with the club, we have to pay great attention to speak also to the Premier League. One day more, one day less can change totally your life and you can drop points. This is no good for a team like Tottenham."

These are the same issues the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel have also raised, the difference being each of those have lifted the Champions League trophy aloft during their careers.

Now, as he embarks on his sixth season in the greatest club competition of them all, Conte must put talk of fixture congestion, a lack of squad depth or simply being unlucky with the draw to one side and prove that lessons have been learned from the past.

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