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Arsenal boss knew there'd be a response – but not one that went for jugular

He was never going to let it go without comment. Was there anyone with even a passing interest in English football who thought Jose Mourinho was prepared to allow a dig from Arsene Wenger to go unremarked upon, perhaps with a shrug, a smile and a conciliatory word?

There would be more chance of the Chelsea manager rolling his new sponsor's sports car into the swollen waters of the river Mole that runs past his training ground in Cobham. In his eyes, the "fear to fail" remark from Wenger was the barb he had half-anticipated since he returned to Chelsea.

Yet, the curious thing about this latest round of Mourinho v Wenger was that, when Mourinho's initial anger had subsided, there was more than a trace of reluctance that he felt he had been forced to go for the jugular and that the row is likely to escalate.

There are many who dislike Mourinho. There are some who believe that he went over the top in calling Wenger a "specialist in failure". But the Arsenal manager will undoubtedly have known that as soon as he suggested it was "fear to fail" that was driving Mourinho that there would be a response. That the response was spikier, harder, is simply the way it has always been with Mourinho.

That is where he has positioned himself as the title race enters its final phase and his team play Manchester City in the fifth round of the FA Cup today. He has been courteous, but he is always prepared to put the boot in if he believes the moment demands it.

The choice for his opponents is either to ignore him or roll up their sleeves and throw one back. Wenger has landed his fair share of punches over the years.

Yesterday at the Cobham training ground, Mourinho arrived late, apologised and within three questions was delivering his verdict on Wenger's remarks. He scarcely had to be told what they were. It was when he spoke later, in his newspaper briefing, that there was the sense that he had never wanted to go down this path with Wenger.

It was put to Mourinho, with the television cameras off, that his assessment of Wenger would go around the world and that they were harsh words. "It also goes around the world what he said before that," Mourinho replied. Did it annoy him? "Yes". A pause, then "He (Wenger) loves to look at this football club. I thought between 2007 and 2013 was enough time for him to forget this.

"I believe at the end of the day I'll be (perceived as) the unpolite guy, the one who's aggressive in his words. But of course not. He is saying we're not candidates because we're afraid of failure. Failure of what? Not winning a title this year? Or in two years? I have a lot of respect for him. Failure is not winning a title in seven or eight years. That's failure. Am I aggressive in my words? I don't know."

It was those last words that articulated the regret that it had come to this. Pledging respect for Wenger is an unlikely counterpoint to the thrust of Mourinho's attack but he said it with sincerity. In pre-season he had tried to dampen any sense that the old hostilities still existed, recounting how he and Wenger recently had dinner together at a Uefa conference.

He also said then that he would "not bet for one single problem" between the two of them, and the fact that the first explosion has come in February is probably an achievement of sorts.

It is the notion of failure that rankles Mourinho most. It goes to the very heart of what he believes he is, the image he projects to the world, and most crucially his players.

The prospect of a City quadruple appears to haunt him somewhat. But after yesterday's exchange, one can be sure that, more than ever, it is the Premier League title that he covets the most. Even if he will not admit the possibility of winning it. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent