Antonio Conte is not buying José Mourinho’s attempt to play down Manchester United’s chances of qualifying for the Champions League by finishing in the top four, suggesting the Old Trafford club have the resources to fight on two fronts.
Mourinho has hinted he may need to prioritise success in the Europa League over the Premier League but his Chelsea counterpart expects United to do their utmost to try to beat his team at Old Trafford on Sunday.
When asked whether he believed Mourinho would focus more on the forthcoming Europa League quarter-final second leg against Anderlecht, Conte replied: “No, I think Manchester United have the possibility to arrive in the table in the first four places.
“But I’m sure United’s players know this situation. They want to fight to arrive in this position. It’s not right to be concentrated only on one target if you have the possibility with two [options] to reach the Champions League.”
United drew 1-1 away to Anderlecht on Thursday and will host the Belgians in the return leg next Thursday knowing that even a scoreless draw would take them a step closer to winning that tournament and qualifying for next season’s Champions League. They are also in contention to reach the continent’s elite competition through the Premier League, as they are only four points behind fourth-placed Manchester City, over whom they have a game in hand.
Mourinho’s men are six points behind third-placed Liverpool, over whom United have two games in hand.
The Portuguese has spoken of the difficulty of challenging for a top-four finish while advancing in the Europa League but Conte believes top teams can sustain challenges on more than one front.
He admits, all the same, that his task at Stamford Bridge this season has been simplified by the club’s non-participation in Europe but says that alone does not explain their dominance in the Premier League.
“For sure we had more time to work with the team,” he said. “This is my first season with a new club and it’s important to have more time to work and transfer your ideas of football. We are doing a great job. We hope in the future to play the great competitions like the Champions League. I prefer this.”
The interaction between both managers will inevitably be scrutinised on Sunday in light of previous rancour between the pair. Mourinho accused Conte of trying to humiliate him during their meeting in October, when Conte urged the Stamford Bridge crowd to cheer louder as Chelsea trounced United 4-0. When Chelsea beat United 3-1 in last month’s FA Cup tie Chelsea fans taunted their former manager with chants of “Judas”, prompting Mourinho to remind them that he has won more than any other manager in the London club’s history so “Judas is No1”.
although Conte says he bears no ill will towards his predecessor.
“I have zero problems,” he said. “It’s only a sporting competition between him and me. There is a game of football.
“I want to try and win with my team, he wants to try and win with his team. It’s normal to be a conflict during the game but it’s only a sporting conflict. ”Many coaches try to manipulate the ideas and try to put your thoughts in the way they want. But it’s not important for me. It’s important to continue to work and have our idea of football.”