LONDON (Reuters) – When Tottenham Hotspur manager Antonio Conte was asked what he was hoping for in the January transfer window he said his first priority was maximising the squad he inherited after taking over in November.
On current evidence the Italian is proving as good as his word with his side extending their unbeaten Premier League run under him to nine games thanks to an incredible last-gasp 3-2 victory at Leicester City on Wednesday.
That victory, in which substitute Steven Bergwijn scored twice deep into stoppage time, lifted Tottenham into fifth spot and on Sunday they travel to Chelsea, who Conte took to the Premier League title ahead of Tottenham in 2017.
Dutchman Bergwijn has been linked with a move away from the club, but his brace at Leicester offered further evidence of Conte’s impact at Spurs.
Matt Doherty, another player who has disappointed since joining, was also instrumental in the win at Leicester, while England midfielder Harry Winks looks rejuvenated.
Tottenham’s talisman Harry Kane produced his best performance of the season at Leicester, scoring one and setting up Bergwijn’s dramatic winner.
Conte is the first to admit his squad lacks the quality in depth to challenge the leading trio of Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea. But he has certainly got Spurs ticking.
So much so that a season that appeared to be heading nowhere now looks full of hope for a top-four finish.
Tottenham have 36 points from 19 games and are one point behind fourth-placed West Ham United with three games in hand.
Some of Tottenham’s performances under Conte have been laboured, but only Manchester City and Liverpool have picked up more points in their last 10 games.
And while Conte is still awaiting the first signing of the window, he has changed the dressing room.
“He is bringing a winning mentality,” former Tottenham striker Peter Crouch said. “There is a long-standing thing with Tottenham that they are soft in areas and that they lose.
“The manor of the league and the way it’s going at the moment, the top four spot is open. The fans will start believing.”
It could be a good time to play Chelsea too.
Tottenham were outclassed by Thomas Tuchel’s team in the League Cup semi-final, losing 3-0 on aggregate.
But Chelsea have looked laboured in the Premier League, picking up seven points from their last six matches to kiss goodbye to their title hopes.
Tuchel admitted his squad was mentally and physically exhausted after a 1-1 draw at Brighton and Hove Albion on Tuesday — a result that left them 12 points behind City.
While Chelsea’s demanding schedule has been a factor, few will offer much sympathy to a manager blessed with a squad full of quality.
“We need points because we want to be top of the league. We have to look at ourselves and we have to improve and step up,” goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga said.
With Manchester City, who face Southampton on Saturday, seemingly running away with the title after a 12-match winning run, the battle for fourth spot is compelling.
Faltering West Ham travel to seventh-placed Manchester United on Saturday with United, two points behind, in the mix after a fortunate win at Brentford.
Sixth-placed Arsenal, level with United on 35 points, host Burnley who have sunk to the bottom after not playing a league match since Jan. 2
The relegation battle resumes on Friday with 18th-placed Norwich City at 17th-placed Watford knowing a win would see them climb out of the bottom three. Newcastle United, in 19th, travel to Leeds United on Saturday.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Ed Osmond)