“Since my arrival, I don’t think many people imagined Tottenham could fight for a place in the Champions League.”
When Antonio Conte took charge at Tottenham in November 2021, with the club languishing in ninth position in the Premier League after their early-season malaise, securing Champions League football was, as he says, unimaginable.
But surrendering that most-coveted of prizes to rivals Arsenal, in their own back yard? Well, it is that truly unthinkable prospect which Spurs will bid to avoid in Thursday’s delayed north London derby, live on SkySports.
Conte and Spurs have three games to overturn the current four-point deficit to the Gunners and book a ticket to Europe’s elite-club competition at the expense of their arch-rivals.
Victory at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium will cut Arsenal’s advantage to a point with two to play, defeat will see Mikel Arteta secure the red half of north London a seat back at the top table of European football for the first time in five seasons.
Seldom has a north London derby taken on such significance, which is why, on this occasion, Conte has sought to shift Tottenham’s rivalry with Arsenal, and everything that comes with it, to one side. With so much at stake, laser focus is required.
“These are important games for the table, first of all,” Conte exclusively told Sky Sports. “It’s a vital game for us because if we want to continue having an opportunity to play in the Champions League we need three points, we need to win. There is no other solution for us.
“I also know very well the importance of this game. It’s a north London derby, I understand the rivalry between the two teams very well, but the first thing for us is that we have to try and win and get three points for the table , and then because we want to give satisfaction to our fans.
“The game against Arsenal is an important game, it’s a north London derby, it’s important for the rivalry between the two teams, but the most important thing is the three points. With three points, it means we go very close to them and put pressure on them.”
Conte is no stranger to risks and rewards that only a derby day can offer.
His illustrious playing and managerial career has thrust him front and center of the biggest games in Turin, Milan, and in London, where his two-season reign as Chelsea boss pitted him against the club he now manages.
It is those very experiences he will lean on as he attempts to strike the perfect balance ahead of sampling the north London edition for the very first time.
“This is a game with great emotion, we have to try and control our emotions, arriving to this game with your head very cool will also be very important,” Conte added. “But you also have to enjoy these types of games.
“We worked very hard to have this type of game and, for this reason, it will be very important to enjoy but at the same time do everything to get three points.”
As for whether Champions League qualification will be the sole determining factor for the success or failure of his first season at Tottenham, that is one of a few questions Conte diverted up his chain of command.
“This is not a question for me, it’s a question maybe for the club,” he added. “I don’t know if the club’s aspiration at the start was to fight for a place in the Champions League, honestly.
“To have only three games to go and to have the possibility to get a place in the Champions League, for us it means we have worked very hard and worked very well with my players.
“I don’t think many people could imagine since my arrival that Tottenham could fight for a place in the Champions League. But with the great work of my players we are in a position where we can fight for a big achievement.
“When I arrived this team was ninth. I don’t think the club was targeting a place in the Champions League, maybe in the Europa Conference League or Europa League, but we know very well in England that there is no easy game and to finishing the season in a good place is not simple.
“There are many teams… Manchester United finished last season second and added players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane and maybe they can finish sixth or seventh, and you speak about Tottenham failure?
“I think this season is a great success, especially for the relationship created with the players and the achievement we have reached in my time here, but the job isn’t finished, we have to finish this job.”
Conte’s assessment mirrors that of the consensus in north London. For many, Tottenham’s transformation under the Italian, their rise from the depths plunged under Nuno Espirito Santo, constitutes success which can only be enhanced by the final three games of the season, not diminished.
While he may be playing the statesman publicly, you can be sure that Conte the competitor will not want to leave this season’s exploits open to interpretation. Which is why if he and his players ensure nothing is left to chance when Tottenham and Arsenal do battle for the 191st time this Thursday, you are best advised to have one eye on the dugout at all times.
Tottenham’s remaining PL fixtures
May 12 – Arsenal (hrs), live on Sky Sports
May 15 – Burnley (h)
May 22 – Norwich
Essential Football Podcast: North London derby special – Antonio Conte exclusive & Alan Smith’s preview
Ahead of Thursday’s season-defining North London derby, Sky Sports digital football journalist Jack Wilkinson heads to the Tottenham training ground to speak with boss Anthony Contebefore senior football journalist Oliver Yew sits down with former Arsenal striker alan smith for the view from the red half of north London.
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