The March 13 matchup between Manchester United and Chelsea, which took place during the sixth round of the FA Cup was definitely a memorable one–on the field as well as on the sidelines. Chelsea went on to a neat 1-0 victory against Man Utd in a hotly-contested bout that certainly didn’t lack for excitement.
As pulse-pounding as the action was on the field however, what really left a mark on the collective memory of football fans was the near-coming-to-blows of Chelsea head coach Antonio Conte and Manchester boss, former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho.
Things came to a head between the two when Conte had a few words with Mourinho after what Conte claimed were repeated intentional fouls against his players.
Highlights of the game
- Chelsea wins 1-0 versus Manchester.
- Before the game, Manchester manager Jose Mourinho claims that Chelsea has been playing defensively all season.
- Manchester United is now fifth in the Premier League.
- Chelsea set to face Tottenham in the FA Cup semi-final.
- Chelsea and Manchester United scheduled to meet again on April 16.
Round two between Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte
Those who have been following the Premier League will recall that the two had previously clashed early on in the current season. Moments before this particular game started, there was palpable friction as Conte flatly dismissed Mourinho not-so-subtle suggestion that Chelsea had been utilizing “defensive” tactics all season.
It didn’t take long for things to take a turn for the worse. For most of the first half, it was clear that the Man Utd had it out for Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, who was on the receiving end of some vicious fouls. During the post-match press conference, Conte decried the impossibility of Hazard being able to play properly because of the “repeated kicks” that he received. More details here.
The straw that broke the Conte’s back
Just minutes before the close of the first half, referee Michael Oliver sent Manchester’s Ander Herrera packing on the basis of two fouls committed on Hazard. Coach Mourinho then angrily kicked the ball toward Conte’s direction, which proved to be the final straw for the Chelsea manager.
It was then that Conte strode over to the Manchester bench and the two engaged in a heated exchange for several tense seconds until fourth official Mike Jones finally managed to separate them.
Conte had a few more words to say after the encounter, deriding what he said were Mourinho’s questionable methods as “not football”. The wedge that had been building up the two had clearly become a yawning chasm, and it seems that the tension will last throughout the rest of the season. Even with Chelsea clear favourites to win the premier league this season (1/17 with Unibet), the tension with Manchster Utd keeps the tension high until the very end.
In happier times
But the relationship between the two wasn’t always so strained. Back when Mourinho was with Chelsea, Conte had actually paid him a social visit and was received warmly. Of course, that was more than three years ago. Back then, Conte was the manager of the Italian team, and as such, did not pose a threat to the plucky Portuguese boss. On more than one occasion, Conte has since expressed “great respect” for Mourinho.
That respect seems to have dwindled down to nothing, as seen during the touchline verbal dustup during the March 13 game. Mourinho, who has built up quite a reputation for his feistiness on the field and in the press conference hall, seemed a bit nonplussed that an upstart like Conte would dare challenge his superiority.
The Portuguese manager–who had squared up against most every other manager in the league–seemed to lose a bit of ferocity in the face of Conte’s raging onslaught. Read more here.
Mourinho meets his match
That Mourinho seemed less aggressive than usual during his encounter with Conte was fairly obvious. Perhaps one of the reasons was that he knew exactly what the Chelsea head honcho was talking about regarding the fouls on Eden Hazard. In fact, Mourinho expressed similar sentiments only a few years ago when he was with Chelsea, and Hazard was similarly under attack.
But that was then and this is now, and the football landscape has changed quite a bit since Mourinho was at the helm of the Chelsea team. Back then, Jose Mourinho was undoubtedly at the top of the roost, picking his battles with viciousness and precision, before ultimately ending up victorious.
Even Pep Guardiola–with whom Mourinho had famously butted heads with on more than one occasion–was forced to concede to the Portuguese superiority, saying that “In this room, (Mourinho) is the chief”, during a press conference.
Mourinho and the art of the mind game
A large part of the Mourinho mystique is his reliance on what many have referred to as “mind games”. Conte was at the receiving end of only one example, when Mourinho made mention of what he said was the Chelsea team’s defensive stance.
In a bit of a backhanded compliment, Mourinho expressed surprise at “the way they play”, saying that he thought that Chelsea “demanded a different kind of football”.
Regardless of what Mourinho thought, it was clear that Chelsea was anything but defensive during the match with Man Utd. Drawing on the energy and aggression of youth, Conte edged and prodded and pushed his players on, who delivered with energy and vigor on to the game-deciding second-half goal by N’Golo Kante. It was also pretty obvious that Chelsea as a team had better players and were more together than the Manchester crew.
Chelsea’s victory was undoubtedly a sore point for Mourinho, who had admittedly played a role in bringing Chelsea to where they are now. As the jeers and hoots rained down upon him from the Chelsea bleachers, he held up three fingers to the crowd, signifying the number of games that Chelsea won in the premier league during his two terms as manager.
The road ahead is rough
Again, that was then and this is now. While Mourinho may have been flying high while with Chelsea, managing Manchester is proving to be a tougher row to hoe. While he previously displayed an uncanny ability to pick his battles and coast to a decisive victory, his encounter with Conte suggests a man who is feeling more than a bit of pressure. Has the toughest manager in football finally met his match?
Some would say that it was Mourinho’s tendency to take everything personally that caused his formerly impenetrable veneer to crumble. During the Chelsea-Manchester match, it became obvious fairly quickly how important it was for Mourinho to win the game.
It was equally obvious that this overpowering desire for victory wasn’t lost on Conte, who was just as fixated on winning. With two such driven individuals guiding their troops on the field, it was inevitable that they would butt heads, and they did.
Interestingly enough, Mourinho and Conte aren’t all that different from one another. In fact, the friction between the two could very well be attributed more to their similarities than their differences.
Conte is young, aggressive, and clearly focused on bringing his team to an immediate victory–the same qualities that Mourinho possessed when he was with Chelsea. And as questionable as some of Mourinho’s tactics are, he does seem to have the best interest of his team in mind.
Out with the old, in with the new
But where they differ is in how they see the role of the manager-coach. Mourinho is from the traditional-school of football where the manager can make or break the team. Contrast this with Conte, who said:
“The coaches are not important. The most important thing is what happens on the pitch. What happens outside is only a circus.”
As of now, it remains to be seen as to whether or not Conte represents the changing role of the manager-coach in Premier League football. What is clear is that his approach seems to be working for Chelsea, which is now 30 points ahead of where they were in the previous season, while Manchester struggles to maintain the fifth position.
Chelsea and Manchester United are set to meet again on April 16, 2017.