Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte keep escalating their individual war of words, with each dig seemingly more personal and pointed than the last.
For now, the dust seems to have settled. After enlivening FA Cup weekend with their drawn-out war of words, Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte have both taken a step back this week. With the title race apparently already settled, though, Feb. 25, when Chelsea travels to Manchester United, has already been circled on the calendar.
The resumption of the Champions League may have taken some of the heat out of the situation by then, but for now it’s hard not to see the Mourinho-Conte antagonism as being at least in part the result of their knowledge that the league title has almost certainly gone. They are both under pressure, and Conte’s situation will not have been eased by Wednesday’s 0-0 draw against Arsenal in the first leg of the Carabao Cup semifinal. It seems increasingly likely that he will return to Italy in the summer; Mourinho’s position, however, is more complex.
Conte and Mourinho have traded blows before. Mourinho protested about Conte whipping up the Stamford Bridge crowd when Chelsea beat Manchester United 4-0 in October 2016. A month later, Conte asked why Mourinho had never picked Victor Moses during his time at Chelsea. Last February, Mourinho dismissed Chelsea as “a defensive team” as it opened up a lead at the top of the table. When the sides met in the FA Cup a month later, Conte protested about the physical treatment received by Eden Hazard.
Last summer, Conte made pointed comments about United’s spending and then spoke of the need to avoid a “Mourinho season,” the sort of slump that had happened after Chelsea’s previous title success. Mourinho responded by mocking Conte’s hair transplant. Both have since accused the other of constantly moaning about the injuries their teams have suffered.
This latest spat began when Mourinho, responding to suggestions he has seemed resigned, almost downbeat at times this season, replied, “Because I don't behave as a clown on the touchline, it means that I lost my passion,” he said. That seemed harmless enough, but then that is the hallmark of the great Mourinho jab–he’s extremely good at giving himself plausible deniability. He might have been talking about Conte, but he might equally have been talking about Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola or nobody specific at all.
But the clown remark was floated towards Conte at his next press conference. Conte bit, and bit hard. There were those who accused the media of mischievousness, of lighting the fire, but what was clear was that Conte wasn’t sure it wasn’t about him.
"I think he has to see himself in the past–maybe he was speaking about himself in the past,” Conte said. “Maybe, sometimes, I think that someone forgets what's said in the past, which is his behavior.
"Sometimes I think there is, I don't know the name, but ‘demenza senile’ ... when you forget what you do in the past."
Back to Mourinho. Like Conte, he began with what seemed a realistic and calm response that would damp down the situation, blaming the media for provoking something of nothing. But then, with many feeling slightly admonished, came the knife thrust at the end: "What never happened to me–and will never happen–is to be suspended for match-fixing. That never happened to me and will never happen."
Conte was suspended for four months during 2012-13 for failing to report match-fixing while at Siena, a charge he has always denied. He was cleared by a criminal court in 2016. Needled, Conte went back on the attack. He called Mourinho a “fake” for the way he had defended Claudio Ranieri following his sacking by Leicester having previously derided him, then dismissed him as “a little man” for dragging up the match-fixing issue.
"In the past,” he said, “he was a little man in many circumstances, he's a little man in the present and for sure he will be a little man in the future. I consider him a little man and I consider him a man with a very low profile."
The most damaging remark, though, was one that was less obvious.
“Maybe in the past with the cinema it was enough,” Conte went on. “Now you have to show football knowledge and the cinema is not enough for the coach."
That will have stung. Mourinho has always resented his outsider status, has always felt he did not receive the credit he deserved for his achievements within the game perhaps because he was never a player of any note–and here was Conte suggesting his genius was only ever smoke and mirrors.
Most troubling, it has started to manifest itself on the pitch. United recently has lacked the sort of cohesion that is the mark of a great side. Rather, it is a group of talented individuals who recently have been reliant on an extraordinary run of form from Jesse Lingard to keep going. Conte isn’t the first to hint that Mourinho’s methods may be outdated.
Increasingly, the possibility seems to be growing that Mourinho may also depart at the end of the season. Leave now, and he can cling to his whinges about a lack of spending and refereeing decisions. Give it another year of failure–falling short of trophies in the Premier League and Champions League–and those excuses will look even more threadbare than they do already.
For now, though, there is some unfinished business with Conte to attend to.