ifth in the Slovenian top-flight. One win 11 games. Without a single point ever in European competition. Not even in existence the last time Tottenham won a trophy.
Whichever way you dress it up, this was a giant-killing of truly monstrous proportions, the kind Europa Conference League was not really designed to throw up, but one that leaves Tottenham’s future in Europe’s third-tier club competition embarrassingly uncertain.
After finding Vitesse Arnhem and Rennes trickier-than-expected customers, ten-man Spurs hit a new low on their Thursday night travels, as Amadej Marosa’s deflected final kick of the game earned NS Mura a 2-1 win, the most famous in their history, and ended Antonio Conte’s side’s hopes of reaching the last-16 directly, the novelty of a knockout round playoff now the best they can hope for on the other side of Christmas.
Conte’s first European away match in charge was cast as an opportunity for Tottenham to build on their first league victory under the new boss, against Leeds on Sunday, and a chance for a second-string treated as virtual outcasts at times by Nuno Espirito Santo to reintegrate and impress.
Nowhere was the sense of wasted opportunity more prevalent than at wing-back – ironically, the area of the pitch where Spurs are expected to flourish under Conte. The 52-year-old’s appointment was supposed to have handed a lifeline to Ryan Sessegnon and Matt Doherty, who through lack of form and fitness had become forgotten men under the previous regime.
Conte had talked up Sessegnon’s chances of belatedly kickstarting his Spurs career in a position which the 21-year-old he feels sure will be his best, while Doherty hoped to spark a renaissance returning to the role that brought about the best football of his career at Wolves.
But, where two nights ago Chelsea’s wing-backs had performed a masterpiece on Europe’s biggest stage, Tottenham’s understudies chose the city of Maribor as the setting for a tragicomedy.
Sessegnon was the protagonist, his red card after little more than half-an-hour for two thoughtless challenges turning Spurs’ task in trying to come back from Tomi Horvat’s early goal from an inconvenience into a major undertaking.
Sessegnon spoke ahead of this game of being inspired by the performances of Reece James and Ben Chilwell across London at Stamford Bridge, their early season numbers in terms of goals and assists representing a blueprint for a player who once found the next 15 times in a Championship season for Fulham.
But even in his 32 minutes on the pitch, Sessegnon’s attacking threat was restricted to one tame, deflected effort from a Harry Kane lay-off as a lopsided back-three, with the abysmal Davinson Sanchez playing as a right-footer on its left, struggled to feed him high on the wing.
More often, Spurs’ attacks came down the opposite flank, where Doherty was playing a hapless cameo, full of hefty touches and woeful deliveries, before being put out of his misery as one of four players hauled off in a quadruple change soon after half-time.
In all, eight players were making their first starts under Conte and none can be hopeful of featuring against Burnley on Sunday. Indeed, several may be waiting until the final – now pivotal – group match against Rennes for their next opening. Sessegnon’s suspension means even that one will pass him by.
A step backwards for Kane
Harry Kane’s cool finish, which until deep into stoppage time looked like salvaging the point that would have, somewhat undeservedly, kept Spurs’ hopes of finishing top of the group alive, took his goal tally for the season to 18 for club and country. That’s the positives out of the way.
Having looked back to his best when plundering seven goals in two games for England during the international break, Kane then produced one of his most encouraging Spurs displays of the season despite not getting on the scoresheet against Leeds, but this was a backwards step, a frustrated, lacklustre performance more like those that populated Nuno Espirito Santo’s reign.
Of the England captain’s 18-goal haul so far this season, 14 have come against either Mura, Pacos de Ferreira, San Marino, Andorra or Albania. It will be some time until he faces that level of opposition again and with a hectic fixture list ahead, Conte desperately needs this latest off-night to prove an anomaly in the post-Nuno era, rather than a reversion to type.