There’s a cup final this weekend, but the dominant narrative concerns neither Arsenal nor Manchester City, but two men whose personal duel has made headlines all season long. After weeks, possibly months, of verbal sparring through the media, Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho will face off at Old Trafford on Sunday as Manchester United host Chelsea. Prepare yourself for the forensic analysis of whether they shake hands.
Indeed, no secret has been made of the pair’s intolerance for each other. Insults have been slung back and forth, with things getting a little too personal, a little too close to the wire, at times. The discourse has verged on tedium and so it will provide a relief to many that, finally, there will be a manifestation of all that antagonism this week – an actual football match.
But why have Conte and Mourinho been at each others’ throats in the first place? Why have they taken aim at one another when neither man are in direct competition with each other, at least not in the league. Chelsea are not really a threat to Man Utd and Man Utd are not really a threat to Chelsea. It all seems rather contrived.
Of course, some will point out that Mourinho is irked by how quickly his former club moved on without him, winning the Premier League title under new manager Conte last season. The Portuguese coach isn’t exactly known for his thick skin and so it would seem that his Italian adversary has got under that skin.
However, the man who has got under the skin of both men more than anyone else is Pep Guardiola. The former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss was seen as an outsider when he was appointed Manchester City manager in the summer of 2016, but he has very quickly set a new standard in the English game, with his side currently holding a 16-point lead at the top of the table. They might as well start tying the sky blue ribbons on the trophy now.
Mourinho, in particular, has been irked by the success of his rival on the other side of the city. The Premier League was his domain, where he had enjoyed more success than any other manager over the past decade. This was where he was going to show Guardiola how things are done on this show. Things haven’t really worked out this way, though.
Instead, it is Guardiola who is setting a new precedent, not just for Mourinho but for the future of English football. His Man City team are doing things that no other side in Premier League history has, marrying a very high level of entertaining, dynamic play with extreme efficiency in achieving results. That has to sting for Mourinho.
And for Conte to, who has seen his achievements with Chelsea last season belittled by what Manchester City are doing this term. The Italian, just like Mourinho, finds it difficult to keep his emotions to himself and this disgruntlement at being left behind has bubbled to the surface in the form of tangible frustration. In the form of responding to Mourinho’s jibes.
After all, what will Sunday’s clash at Old Trafford decide? In a sporting sense, there is very little on the line between Manchester United and Chelsea. The winner will only help their cause in finishing in the top four and securing qualification for next season’s Champions League. The build-up and rhetoric far outweighs the true importance of his game.
This is a rivalry that has been constructed and conjured up by the only two men whom it concerns – Conte and Mourinho. Fixtures between Chelsea and Manchester United will always attract eyeballs, but will this weekend’s results have any great knock-on effect for their rivals around them? No.
And therein lies the underlying motivation behind Conte and Mourinho’s restlessness this season. They have been left to spark their own rivalries, their own duels, because they have been left cut adrift by a team and a manager who should have been a rival, but are out of sight.
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