COMMENT: Give the crown to Manchester City. It’s over. The title race is done and dusted. Who says? Why, Jose Mourinho of course…
For the Manchester United manager, with still half the season to run, it’s now all about finishing runners up. This week’s events are proof of that. Now it’s about taking out those who threaten automatic Champions League qualification.
For Antonio Conte, the Chelsea manager, this week’s nasty exchange with Mourinho was personal. But those claiming the same for the United boss have missed their mark. Of course, Mourinho has previous with Conte. But he also has history with Pep Guardiola at City and his long time nemesis at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger. But his “clowns” jibe was leveled at Conte and Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. No-one else. This was about getting a rise out of the pair of them. To throw Chelsea and Liverpool off course.
Branding claims he was spying a way out of Old Trafford as “garbage news”, Mourinho then – without prompting – threw things back at Klopp and Conte: “Because I don’t behave as a clown on the touchline, it means that I lost my passion?”
Klopp, still basking in the glow of his £75m man Virgil van Dijk grabbing an FA Cup winner against Everton, dismissed the jibes. A smile. A shrug. And he was back to talking about his team and what they had planned for the future.
Conte, in contrast, made it about him. He took the bait.
“I don’t know why he’s falling for it,” said a source close to Conte, the same who first told Tribalfootball.com of Roman Abramovich’s move for the Italian. “He’s even admitted Mourinho is trying to provoke him.”
Indeed, Conte’s response simply confirmed he’d taken the hook.
“When a person has the target to offend, you are a little man,” Conte declared. “You all know him very well in the past, he’s always the same.”
And with that, it descended. Mourinho raising Calciopoli and Juventus’ demise under Conte and the Italian firing back, coming ever so close to a physical threat.
“He used serious words,” Conte said. “I won’t forget this.
“This is not a problem from the club, it is a problem between me and him. I stop.”
Great theatre. Love it. All the drama. It makes great headlines. Exciting reading. But this isn’t what Abramovich signed up for. Where’s the charmer? The passionate, positive character so good for Chelsea’s profile around the globe? Conte, with his response, is talking himself out of a job.
To drag Chelsea into a nasty, vendetta-filled exchange – on the back of the constant picking at the board over transfer policy – Conte is boxing himself into a corner.
It broke yesterday in the Italian press that Chelsea have already sent out feelers to a potential replacement – Massimiliano Allegri. And this is no floater, this one’s rock solid.
The move was actually initiated by Allegri’s people. He knows his time is coming to an end at Juve. And contact was made with Chelsea, before Christmas, to alert them of his potential availability.
But now, it’s on. Serious discussions have been held amongst intermediaries. We’ve learned Allegri’s selling point is he can do for Chelsea what he’s done for the Bianconeri. He stepped into the breach after Conte’s resignation, continued the club’s run of titles – but with a marked difference. No-one inside Juve could accuse Allegri of demanding – or even interfering – in transfer policy. Nor could they accuse him of openly criticising anyone connected to the club. He’s basically been sold by his representatives as Conte without the baggage.
And what we can also reveal is unlike Conte, Allegri has long been learning English. Ever since his sacking at AC Milan, he has been taking English lessons in preparation to eventually making the move to England.
It really should’ve happened this summer. Arsenal and Allegri were close – very close – to an agreement before the board bottled it and gave Arsene Wenger the final say on a new contract.
Instead, the destination could be Chelsea – unless Conte winds his neck in.
Make no mistake, Conte wants to stay with the Blues. With his wife and daughter now six months into their relocation. Coaching staff, having left cushy jobs in Italy, to join Conte over the summer. He has told everyone who matters he is at Chelsea for the long haul. But the decision could be taken away from him if he can’t find a better way of responding to his predecessor.
Mourinho, without a ball being kicked, wanted to rattle Conte and derail Chelsea’s resurgence. Unless he immediately pulls back, Conte is helping the “little man” do just that.