Monday 24 July 2017

Conte bides his time to have the last word with Mourinho

A delighted Antonio Conte congratulates Eden Hazard after the match. Photo credit: Adam Davy/PA Wire
A delighted Antonio Conte congratulates Eden Hazard after the match. Photo credit: Adam Davy/PA Wire

Ian Herbet

The question had been put six times late on Monday night before Antonio Conte, with his grasp of English by no means fully developed, realised that he was being asked had he seen an apparent stamp on Eden Hazard by Marcos Rojo of Manchester United.

"Hazard? He received? Our player?" he replied, amid the struggle for comprehension.

"Seems like you didn't see it then!" someone joked before the penny dropped with the Chelsea manager.

This sense of unknowing - innocence, even - was gratifying, given that Jose Mourinho, who preceded Conte into Chelsea's press conference room, had given one of those performances which suggested he occupies a parallel universe with pretty much every answer devoid of truth or sincerity.

Every word is carefully weighed for political purpose with Mourinho and his grasp of facts is often dubious.

Deafening

The United manager's attempts to begin his press conference were initially thwarted by Fabio Capello switching on the deafening hand dryer in the adjacent gents room while the door was open.

"Hot air being drowned out by hot air," as one observer put it.

Straight out of the Mourinho copybook was his verbal riposte to those fans who had called him "Judas" from the stands during the 1-0 FA Cup defeat.

"Until the moment they have a manager who wins four Premier Leagues for them, I am the Number 1. Until this moment Judas is number 1," Mourinho said.

And almost lost in the fog of war was the fresh, clear air of plain speaking from Conte who said, without malice or pre-calculation, that United's attempts to kick Hazard out of the FA Cup quarter final had not constituted "football."

He was right of course and that is why there can be no complaints about the Ander Herrera dismissal which Mourinho, in that way of his, used as a get-out in the aftermath.

The foul which drew a first yellow card for Herrera was particularly cynical - a shoulder left in the Belgian's way to cut him down in full flight.

The second infringement came only 15 minutes later. The offender's intention was blindingly clear.

When the dust settled on Mourinho's sense of victimhood and the vials of poison he had laid for his old club, it became clear that he has created a new foe here - a course of action he may very well come to regret.

Read more: Rojo in the clear

Considering how impressive Conte's is proving to be in every aspect, Monday night may not be the only round which Mourinho loses.

Strip away the post-match choreography and one aspect is clear - Chelsea's side is technically superior by a substantial distance.

For as long as Hazard walks the turf of west London, there will be an individual motivated to twist the knife, of course.

This is the player who Mourinho managed to alienate so substantially, during the car crash of his second period at Chelsea's helm that he effectively substituted himself in the last game before the Portuguese's dismissal against Leicester.

With every giddying thrust through the United midfield on Monday, Hazard served the Portuguese some payback for those dreadful days.

Conte is storing up some venom to dispense when the time comes, too. The Italian has resisted any temptation to respond to Mourinho's digs, these past seven months but they say he is ready for to let him have it, as and when the Premier League title is Chelsea's.

We had been looking all along to Guardiola v Mourinho as the battle of all battles in the new English managerial landscape but this is the that one feels more visceral, more personal, and destined to run and run.

Independent News Service

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