If the beauty is in the struggle for Conte, then away victories in vicious European arenas do not come much more beautiful than this. Tottenham Hotspur was short of attacking fluidity, invention, and class. Still, they came to France with a resilience and determination that proved precious and, ultimately, carried them into the knockout stages.
The defeat was impossible for the Spurs supporters, but, for a time here, it was a genuine possibility. Conte’s side was trailing at half-time to Chancel Mbemba’s thumping header, and they were heading out of the competition. From the delight of last week’s winner-that-never-was against Sporting Lisbon to the despair of falling behind in the south of France.
With Son Heung-min injured — potentially severely, after a painful blow to his face — in the first half, and with a string of other attackers unavailable, Spurs needed a moment. Any moment, from any player. It came shortly after the break from perhaps the least likely source: Clement Lenglet, the center-back who had never before scored for the club.
And then, with the final kick of the ball, another intervention. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, power still coursing through his legs as everyone else faded around him, running and running. Not towards the corner flag, which would have been reasonable, but towards the goal. His finish ripped into the top corner, ensuring Spurs finished top of the group.
Conte was banned from the touchline here, a result of his complaints following the late disallowed goal last week, but in Hojbjerg and Bentancur, he had two of his most trusted men on the pitch. After a poor first half, these midfielders changed the trajectory of this game for the Spurs and potentially altered the course of their entire season.
Hojbjerg’s late winner ended a run of seven matches without a win away from home in Europe for Spurs and provided a reminder of why this side should still be feared in continental competition. Courage, stubbornness, and the occasional moment of match-winning quality can take a team a long way in the Champions League.