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Cristian Stellini exclusive: Tottenham assistant says Antonio Conte's absence means players are taking more responsibility

Sky Sports exclusive: Tottenham assistant Cristian Stellini on how Spurs have responded to Antonio Conte's absence, bouncing back after two straight defeats and 'amazing' young midfield pair Oliver Skipp and Pape Matar Sarr

On Sunday afternoon, Cristian Stellini will lead Tottenham for the third time this season
Image: On Sunday afternoon, Cristian Stellini will lead Tottenham for the third time this season

When Tottenham welcome West Ham to north London on Sunday afternoon, Cristian Stellini will be the main man in the dugout once again.

Earlier this week, it was announced that Spurs head coach Antonio Conte would remain in Italy - following the 1-0 defeat to AC Milan in the Champions League - after a post-operation check that followed recent gallbladder surgery.

And so, as a result, his assistant and countryman will step up take charge for the third time this season.

The first occasion came in a 2-1 Champions League win over Marseille in November, when Conte was forced to serve a touchline ban, the second was a 1-0 win over Manchester City in the Premier League on February 5.

Image: Stellini and Conte have worked together at three clubs over the last 12 years

Two wins from two is not bad going for a man whose experience leading a team outright equates to five months in charge of Serie C outfit Alessandria back in 2017.

But any suggestion that he is enjoying this experience is quickly refuted. This is a case of holding the fort, nothing more.

"My feeling is not to enjoy this; my feeling is to be responsible," he says in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports at Tottenham's Hotspur Way training complex.

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"I feel the pressure. It's a moment that I need to grow as a coach and when you have to take important decisions, you have to feel responsible.

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"It's not about me, it's about the club, the fans, the players, our jobs, our lives. It's much more important than my feelings."

It is most certainly a welcome bonus that he has a direct line to Conte, who is staying abreast of team matters as he takes time to recuperate at his family home, albeit halfway across Europe.

The pair - who previously worked with one another at Juventus and Inter Milan - are in contact "many times a day", but while Stellini admits Conte needs to take time to recover sufficiently, he is struggling with being away from the day-to-day running of the team.

He continues: "Antonio is recovering and is a bit upset because he cannot be here with us. But he's fine, physically. We understand he needs to recover from the surgery and now he needs to take his time.

"We don't know if the pain [he felt during the AC Milan game] came from stress or the small time he took to recover because to stay in charge and live football like Antonio does normally is with passion and maybe this passion brought more pain for him. He understands that he came back too early.

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Tottenham assistant coach, Cristian Stellini gives an update on head coach Antonio Conte as the Italian continues his recovery from gallbladder surgery in Italy.

"He is available. We speak about the team and training every day and some decisions we will take together.

"But this time is good only for his recovery because when Antonio is far from his job, he's not happy. He is happier here, working with us and the team. Maybe it's a different type of stress, but he needs to take it easy. I don't have an idea when he will be back, though."

So how have the players responded to Stellini stepping up on several occasions?

"They are focused," Stellini explains. "In this aspect I feel very good and comfortable because when I look the players in the eyes, I feel they are taking more responsibility because Antonio is not here.

"They also take care of me because my relationship with them is special, like every assistant manager needs. I can feel that the players want to do it also because they like when we work together.

Image: Conte will remain in Italy to recuperate following recent gallbladder surgery

"It's strange [to step up] because it's a different job. It was really strange to be in charge for one game [vs Marseille], but I had the coach with me. Now it's different because the coach is not here, but I feel Antonio's presence with me.

"I want to say clearly, I'm not alone. We are in charge together, we organise everything together and with all the staff."

Spurs go into Sunday's match following successive defeats to Leicester and AC Milan and remain fifth in the Premier League table, albeit having played two games more than Brighton, who are four points behind in sixth.

Stellini admits he saw improvements in the Milan game, but is looking for his players to step up another notch against the Hammers, who have drawn with Newcastle and Chelsea in their last two league outings.

"We are sad because after the Man City win, we thought we could be much better, much stronger," he says.

Tottenham's next five fixtures

  • West Ham (H) - Premier League, Sunday February 19 - Live on Sky Sports
  • Chelsea (H) - Premier League, Sunday February 26 - Live on Sky Sports
  • Sheffield United (A) - FA Cup, Wednesday March 1
  • Wolves (A) - Premier League, Saturday March 4
  • AC Milan (H) - Champions League, Wednesday March 8

"My feeling was the Leicester game came exactly three days before the AC Milan game and that can affect the team. We have to accept that.

"The AC Milan performance was much better than Leicester. It was a game where we conceded a goal in a situation we could control and my expectation is to play a great game on Sunday against West Ham because we need and deserve it. We want to play a game and win.

"We have to be wary because West Ham have a particular skill, they are strong. In this league, not many clubs have this type of skill. They have power, they are tall, they are strong in counter-attacks, strong in set-pieces, so they will be difficult to play against.

"We know it's a derby in our stadium in front of our fans and we want to play a great game and show from the start that we are a team."

Against Milan, the north Londoners started with Oliver Skipp, 22, and Pape Matar Sarr, 20, in midfield, owing to Rodrigo Bentancur's season-ending ACL injury and a suspension for Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.

With a hint of a smile, Stellini speaks highly of the young pair and explains how important a part they are going to play during a time when the club is going through an injury crisis of sorts, with Hugo Lloris, Ryan Sessegnon and Yves Bissouma all sidelined for extended periods, too.

Oliver Skipp, 22, lined up alongside Pape Matar Sarr, 20, against AC Milan in the Champions League earlier this week
Image: Oliver Skipp, 22, lined up alongside Pape Matar Sarr, 20, against AC Milan in the Champions League earlier this week

"Rodrigo was an important player last season because we reached our target with Hojbjerg and Bentancur together for a long time. We have to accept losing Bentancur for a long time.

"It's dangerous, but also we are happy at the moment with the performances of Skipp and Sarr. We have two young players ready. We have repeated many times that we trust in all the young players and also Pape and Skippy now are the reality.

"Not only are they young players, they can play and will have to play in the future. They were amazing [against Milan]. They were completely focused on the game and they never came out of the game. They created a great balance for us defensively, offensively and in the transition; they stopped the transition of AC Milan many times."

Whether that partnership continues in the short-term remains to be seen, but, whatever happens, the fact Spurs have a clear week before facing Chelsea at home next Sunday can only prove beneficial to its growth.

And with Conte seemingly not expected back at Hotspur Way in the immediate future, that time will undoubtedly prove valuable to Stellini and the players in order to minimise disruption.

"To have a full week to prepare for a game is important, because you have little time and in some aspects you cannot work when have a tough schedule where we play every three days. We will use this week to not only have a rest day, but also to work in some aspects to play many games."

Spurs are in good hands in Conte's absence - and, all being well, he might find them in an even better spot when he returns.

Watch Tottenham vs West Ham on Sky Sports Premier League on Super Sunday from 4pm; kick-off 4.30pm

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