Cup tie drama primed to overshadow Conte-Mourinho mind games
If Antonio Conte has his team close to perfect on the pitch, that has also allowed him to get his responses pitch-perfect for anything controversial off it.
Take when another manager's spikier comments are put to him, or he's questioned about anything that could remotely add a bit of an edge to the hyperactive Premier League news cycle.
Conte smiles, speaks politely and diplomatically, plays a little dumb to it… but then leaves just enough of something in there so you know he's thinking about it all in a very calculated way while ensuring his own side remains fully focused.
Yesterday's press conference ahead of the FA Cup sixth-round tie with Manchester United was a classic example, as he claimed to entirely reject the idea of - yes - mind games, before offering one of his own for Jose Mourinho.
It's one of the best way to play it, of course, especially when your team's results speak for themselves. Mourinho - his predecessor at Chelsea and opposite number for Manchester United in the FA Cup sixth round at Stamford Bridge on Monday - naturally has a different view. He revels in drawing others in, no matter how he is doing, as Didier Drogba has revealed.
"His provocations were almost like entertainment to him," the Ivorian wrote in 2008. "He also believed that the more time opposing managers spent getting angry, the less time they had to dissect his game. Shrewd of him."
The wonder, then, is what Mourinho thinks of Conte in this regard. The Italian doesn't get angry, or any way intimidated. Sure, the Manchester United manager may not have had any direct goes at Chelsea, but there have been enough indirect mentions: how some clubs are doing so well because they don't have European football; how some clubs are supposedly being praised for the type of counter-attacking football he was one criticised for…
There have also been enough for Conte to be asked why he just doesn't engage in Mourinho's mind games. "The mind games... they're strange no," Conte initially said. "It's strange to ask me this. I'm very focused on the pitch. The mind games don't bring you to win. The most important thing is what happens on the pitch. To prepare the team in the right way, with good organisation."
Except, when asked about how United have not been beaten in the league since their 4-0 defeat to Chelsea in October, Conte seemed to make a point of saying that Mourinho and Pep Guardiola have something else probably more important than anything: the best squads in the league.
"In October, before the game, I was sure we'd face a great team," Conte said. "The same now. I think Manchester United, with City, have the best squad in the league. They have a lot, a number of great players with great talent and great experience to win. For sure, it can be a really tough game, for us and for them. I think that now, for us, it's better. In October we didn't know our future. Now we are in March and we stay on top of the table. We have a good identity."
Whatever the reality as to whether mind games do have an effect, or just end up as a pantomime game of oneupmanship between two managers, the comments do touch on a reality for both ahead of this tie.
Conte is over-performing with Mourinho's old squad, while Mourinho is under-performing with United - at least in the league. The Old Trafford club just shouldn't be sixth. All that, however, makes this game even more important to the Portuguese. He needs to prove that position really is unrepresentative, that United are a better side - and close to title challengers - than results like a series of draws suggest.
The Portuguese needs to play this one perfectly. It could set up an actual game far more interesting than any off-pitch pantomime. (© Independent News Service)