Tottenham boss Antonio Conte admits the target of finishing in the top four would have been seen as a ‘joke’ when he first arrived as Spurs close in on a return to the Champions League.
Spurs only need a point at already-relegated Norwich on Sunday to secure their spot in Europe’s elite ahead of rivals Arsenal, who play Everton at home, marking an impressive turnaround in their season.
The team were in disarray when the Italian was appointed in November following a disastrous start to the season under Nuno Espirito Santo, with Conte having to change the mentality of an underperforming squad.
Tottenham boss Antonio Conte admits finishing in the top four was a ‘joke’ when he arrived
But Spurs have rallied under his leadership and are on the brink of returning to Europe’s elite
While the former Inter Milan boss was able to improve performances, the squad struggled for consistency at the start of the year before buying into Conte’s philosophy – surging up the table and eventually overtaking the Gunners and Manchester United in the race for a top four spot.
Conte insists he was not given a target when he arrived, and certainly would have scoffed at the idea of finishing in the top four given the low morale of the team the and poor results they were producing.
‘Daniel didn’t ask me anything. He asked me only how we want, with me in charge, how we can improve the situation. Not a target,’ he told the media.
‘But I think he knows very well that I’m an ambitious person and that I want to try in every situation to sit at the top, to fight for this. But he didn’t ask me anything. This must be very, very clear because if you put me a target then I know that in this moment it’s very difficult.
Conte says he was not given a target by the club as he tried to change the squad’s mentality
‘It was for sure a difficult period. For sure, if he (Levy) had asked me, “I want to go to the Champions League”, at that moment, to be realistic, I can tell him only one thing: ‘Are you joking?’
‘This is the truth because we are talking about England, a situation in this league that is very, very difficult, because there are four top teams. If one of these top teams doesn’t miss the season, it will be very difficult to go inside.
‘At the same time I try to do this because I like to put on myself big, big targets, not minimal targets. I know me, I know myself and I need this challenge to give the best.
‘If you remember in the last nine games, before the last nine games, I said now we are ready to fight for a place in the Champions League, we are in this race. I never said this before but I said it was a miracle and I said we must fight for a place in the UEFA.
Tottenham were struggling for form and confidence when he was appointed in November
‘But in the last nine games, we understood something had changed in everybody, I put the pressure on myself and I pushed, I put the pressure on my players and we are here to speak about an important target for our club.’
Conte already had a huge reputation as a serial trophy winner when he came to north London, but while Spurs haven’t managed to lift any silverware this season, he has improved a lot of his players and forged a strong bond with supporters.
He’s also been able to sprinkle some quality in his squad after the club backed him in the January window – adding winger Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur, who have both shone brightly – while deadwood such as Tanguy Ndombele, Dele Alli and Giovani Lo Celso were offloaded.
Dejan Kulusevski (L) and Rodrigo Bentancur (R) arrived in January to add quality to the squad
He praised the club for backing him after his methods brought a ‘change’ in his players
Conte thanked chairman Daniel Levy for ‘believing’ in him and providing new recruits and insisted he was ‘happy’ at the club after being trusted to transform the club in the way he sees fit.
‘We have to be proud, but I also want to say thanks to the club because in January it’s not simple to listen 100 per cent to your manager and for this reason I want to say thanks,’ he added.
‘The club believed in what I said, in the situation we have to try to improve – not many things but the right things and I think we did this.
‘But I know very well that it’s not simple for the club to make the coach happy – it’s very, very difficult!
‘It was the right case and now to repay the trust of the club, the trust of the players, the trust of fans, makes me happy. But there is the last step to be very, very happy.’