Saturday 21 September 2019

Uneasy truce likely to give way to fireworks on sideline

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has called on his team to be
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has called on his team to be "focused" as they prepare to take on Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday. Photo: PA Wire

Matt Law

Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho yesterday declined to fan the flames of their feud ahead of Chelsea's trip to Manchester United, but this is not a disagreement that is likely to be solved by a fake handshake for the cameras.

Mourinho is said to be willing to offer his hand to Conte at Old Trafford tomorrow, but the Italian refused to confirm whether he would accept it.

Handshake or no handshake, Conte is still angered by Mourinho's match-fixing jibe and nobody should expect the Portuguese to wear the initials 'AC' on his chest - he wore 'CR' when Claudio Ranieri was sacked by Leicester City - if Chelsea's coach leaves Stamford Bridge at the end of the season.

There may have been a ceasefire in the war of words, but there were no apologies or attempts to take back their insults from either man.

Conte's patience with what he perceived as being constant digs from Mourinho over his style of play and complaints over injuries snapped after a reference to "clowns on the touchline".

Biting back, Conte suggested Mourinho might be suffering senile dementia and went even further after his rival referenced the match-fixing allegations during Conte's time in charge of Siena, allegations that he was cleared of.

Conte described Mourinho as being "a little man" and "fake" before claiming he was ready to go face to face in a room with the 55-year-old when Chelsea next took on United. To underline the fact that it is not just the media and supporters who enjoy a good bust-up, Asmir Begovic last year shattered the myth that players and club staff rise above these things.

Talking after Chelsea's FA Cup quarter-final victory over United, in which N'Golo Kante scored the winner, Begovic said: "It was a huge occasion, a huge game at the Bridge.

"As disappointed as I was at not playing in the game, what I did have was first-row seats to what was some amusing sideline antics.

"The two managers going at it, yelling at each other, it was a very intense match.

"It was really unnecessary, but it was so funny, because I was trying so hard not to laugh. Every time the camera was on them, we were thinking 'keep a straight face, keep a straight face, don't laugh at these guys'.

"It wasn't unprofessional, but I thought it was a little bit too much. They were really into it, it was a big deal and I don't think they like each other very much."

That was already round two of Conte's heavyweight clash with Mourinho, following Chelsea's 4-0 Premier League victory in October 2016, which, in many ways, lit the blue touch paper.

Mourinho accused Conte of trying to humiliate him in Italian after becoming upset by the former Juventus manager's celebrations before the final whistle sounded.

Sections of Chelsea's fans have turned on Mourinho since he joined United and the self-proclaimed 'Special One' admitted that with every passing year his bond with the London club weakens even though he is the most successful manager in their history.

"It doesn't mean more because of Conte and this game will mean less and less and less with the passing of years," said Mourinho.

"I left a couple of years ago. It will be three years, then four. Step by step, the feeling I was Chelsea manager, it disappears."

Mourinho did, though, make a point of insisting he remains close to owner Roman Abramovich and Chelsea's board.

"I have a good relationship with the board," said Mourinho. "I don't forget how nice they were to me in a difficult period with (the) departure of my father, they show me in that moment they feel me as a friend that did his best for the club, who always respects the club.

"With the players, I don't have many problems, any regret, any stone in my shoes, no problem at all, and the fans are fans. When I play at Stamford Bridge, some reactions from the fans are just reactions."

Nobody from Chelsea or United has attempted to act as an intermediary between Conte and Mourinho. They might have parked the fuss, but the handbrake could give way again tomorrow.

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

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