Subplots abound in Tottenham Hotspur’s final Champions League group game at Marseille on Tuesday night.
Among the most conspicuous is the potential for Spurs to be dumped out by opponents littered with former Arsenal players. But should the worst happen, the spotlight will rightly fall on the north Londoners and their manager Antonio Conte.
Tottenham could not have asked for a much kinder draw than the one that landed them in Group D. Aside from Marseille, they got Eintracht Frankfurt instead of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Paris Saint-Germain, and Sporting Lisbon rather than Napoli, Inter Milan and Borussia Dortmund. Yet they could still finish bottom of the table.
Going into the last round of fixtures, Group D is the most delicately poised of them all. While the top two spots and qualification for the last 16 have already been decided in five of the eight groups, in Tottenham’s pool any of the four sides could still progress, be relegated to the Europa League or eliminated from continental competition altogether.
For Spurs, the task is clear: win in the south of France and they will finish top of the group; avoid defeat and they will certainly advance. But their form suggests that may not be straightforward.
They have won just one of their last six away Champions League games and have not scored in their two group games on the road so far this season.
Marseille, on the other hand, know that they must win to climb from fourth to first. If that were not motivation enough, the chance to get one over on their old neighbours may add extra spice for one-time Arsenal players Alexis Sanchez, Sead Kolasinac, Matteo Guendouzi and current Gunners loanee Nuno Tavares.
On occasions such as this, having an elite manager ought to be an unquestionable asset, yet in contrast to his domestic success Conte has repeatedly failed to deliver in Europe.
Three of his five Champions League campaigns in charge of Juventus, Chelsea and Inter Milan ended at the group stage, while he has never gone past the last eight as a coach.
Just weeks ago Conte insisted: “For sure, in my heart, in my mind, in my ambition, there is the will to have success in Europe.” Yet he added that elevating Tottenham to the top echelon alongside clubs with greater Champions League heritage was “unthinkable”. That prophecy could prove to be self-fulfilling.
Spurs’s recent results do not inspire great confidence. They avoided a third consecutive Premier League defeat on Saturday, but had to come from two goals down at struggling Bournemouth to do so.
Days earlier they thought they had reached the Champions League knockout stage, only for Harry Kane’s late goal against Sporting to be overturned.
Kane has spoken of the valuable boost that the comeback at Bournemouth delivered ahead of a big week that also includes a visit from Liverpool on Sunday. Marseille, meanwhile, are in the midst of their own wobble, having lost three and drawn one of their last four games.
Conte may not have been lured to Tottenham to win the Champions League so much as get them in it, and they ought to have enough to progress at the Stade Velodrome.
But if they don’t, it will go down as another black mark for the Italian at a time when talks over a new contract invite heightened scrutiny of his contribution.