Antonio Conte steeled to do battle with Manchester United ‘monster’ | David Hytner

As a player at Juventus Antonio Conte had first-hand experience of what it meant to step out at Old Trafford, to feel the power of Manchester United, the aura of one of England’s superclubs.

Conte was the Juventus captain in 1999 when the teams locked horns in the Champions League semi-final and he opened the scoring in the 1-1 first-leg draw in Manchester. Inspired by Roy Keane, United would win the return leg 3-2, having been 2-0 down, en route to the treble.

There is no doubt that Conte was flattered when his agent told him that Sir Alex Ferguson rated him and wanted to sign him. “I knew through him that Mr Ferguson appreciated me a lot at that time,” Conte said, as he looked forward to taking his Tottenham team to Old Trafford on Wednesday night.

“You never know if the agent can tell you the truth or the lie! I didn’t speak to him [Ferguson] because I wanted to stay at Juventus and finish my career there.”

It is easy to become wistful for the Ferguson glory years, to acknowledge that Erik ten Hag’s United reboot still has many circuits to wire, but Conte continues to regard a trip to Old Trafford as a litmus test – especially on a psychological level.

Conte’s respect for United is plain; the financial might, how they back their managers with signings. If facing them under the Old Trafford lights is an occasion to get him going, it is also one he hopes can further progress what he is building at Spurs.

“Manchester United always have the power,” Conte said. “Even in the last 10 years [post-Ferguson]every season they had the power to go into the transfer market and invest big, big money.

“They did this after finishing second two seasons ago, signing Cristiano Ronaldo, [Jadon] Sancho and [Raphaël] Varane.

Conte scores at Old Trafford in the Champions League semi-final first leg in 1999. Photograph: EPA/Shutterstock

“United will always be a monster that you have to go to fight. We are talking about a team that, if they don’t make big mistakes, they always stay in the top four, play Champions League and fight for the title and trophies.

“To play at Old Trafford is not simple. But at the same time it’s a big theater and you have to play with personality, play your football, your ideas. This will be a good step for us to go there and play with personality and try to win. I enjoy the fact that this test is coming now.”

Conte’s team flunked it last season. United were there for the taking on 12 March, reeling from a 4-1 defeat at Manchester City, and Spurs put in a performance that deserved something. Yet they got nothing, Ronaldo scoring a hat-trick in a 3-2 United win. There was too much of him, too little savvy from Spurs, with Conte saying after that his players had to know “when to push and when to be calm. You don’t buy experience, you improve it after these type of games.”

Much has changed since, not least for Ronaldo, who has frequently been overlooked by Ten Hag after trying to get a transfer in the summer. When he has been on the field, it has sometimes felt as if he could play all day and not score – a glaring illustration coming in the Europa League away game against Omonia, which United eventually won 3-2. Never write him off. Conte will not.

Spurs, meanwhile, have lost only three games in all competitions since then – one in April, two this season. They have made their best start to a league campaign since 1963-64 after 10 matches and Conte’s demands about tactical discipline, focus and sacrifice appear to be getting through. Self-belief is rising.

The World Cup looms but Conte does not see it as a distraction, pointing out that Harry Kane, the England captain, will not hold back between now and when the domestic season pauses. “I can tell you that Harry wants to play every game,” Conte said.

Conte roars instructions on the touchline as he watches Spurs on their way to victory against Everton
Conte roars instructions on the touchline as he watches Spurs on their way to victory against Everton. Photograph: Sportimage/Alamy

“A player that wants to play every game is not scared of injury or about missing the World Cup. Like the other [World Cup] players, Harry is really focused on Tottenham.”

It was interesting – and unusual – to hear Conte declare his preference to play 3-4-3 at United because he normally gives nothing away about his lineup. Perhaps it was a ruse and he will stick with the 3-5-2 system that made the difference from the 52nd minute of the 2-0 home win against Everton on Saturday, when he introduced Yves Bissouma for the injured Richarlison.

It felt like a demonstration of confidence in his methods, a doubling down before what he hopes can be a statement result. Conte is primed to slay the monster.

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