For Antonio Conte, the clue was as much in what he did not say as what he did after his Chelsea team had maintained their relentless march towards the Premier League title. His record against Jose Mourinho this season stands at two wins out of two but, amid the distraction during both those matches of the super heavyweight touchline clash, the lingering tension remains obvious.
Mourinho pointedly noted after the FA Cup defeat that “Judas is still No.1” in reference to his three Premier League titles after he was barracked by a section of Chelsea fans but Conte apparently has no interest in heaping further compliments on the self-styled Special One.
Asked on Saturday how much respect he had for Mourinho’s past history at Chelsea, Conte simply feinted past what was an open goal to offer some complimentary soundbites.
“I have already replied to this question before the FA Cup game,” he said. He was more expansive, though, in warning his players that they must overcome the emotion that will inevitably accompany a trip to Old Trafford to face their former manager.
“The most important thing is on the pitch,” said Conte. “For us, it’s always important to control our emotion because we are playing and fighting to win the title.”
Mourinho has questioned the attacking ambition this season of teams at Old Trafford to winand, before the FA Cup match, made what felt like a provocative observation about Chelsea’s style under Conte.
“I’m surprised by the way they play; I thought there were demanding of a different kind of football,” he said. “Chelsea is an amazing defensive team.”
The statistics, of course, actually underline that the difference this season between Chelsea and Manchester United is explained almost completely by the extra attacking qualities of Conte’s team. With his team having won 24 out of 31 Premier League matches this season, Conte was also adamant that, yes, of course his team will go to Manchester United with the purpose of emerging victorious rather than simply avoiding defeat.
“For sure,” said Conte. “It’s important now in every game to try and take three points, including at Old Trafford. We know this game will be very tough but we are in good form and the players have the right confidence.”
The likely added pressure is that Chelsea will again be playing after Tottenham Hotspur, their nearest challengers in the Premier League, who have the rather easier theoretical task of facing Bournemouth on Saturday.
Chelsea handled the knowledge of Tottenham’s 4-0 win against Watford without difficulty on Saturday – Conte did not even follow the results from the 3pm kick-offs immediately before his 5.30pm start – but Bournemouth did again show how they can trouble any team.
“If you compare these two games – we face United away and Tottenham face Bournemouth at home – I think that it’s easier for Tottenham to take points in their home stadium,” said Conte.
“I think Manchester United for sure will have good motivation because they are playing against Chelsea. Every team wants to beat wants to beat the top of the table. We know our schedule is not easy. We are having a good season but we want it to become a great season. To become a great season and to write history you must win.”
Chelsea were actually quite fortuitous to lead 2-1 at half-time on Saturday, with Joshua King scoring for Bournemouth after Adam Smith’s desperately unlucky own goal and then a moment of pure class from Eden Hazard.
Yet what was ultimately so impressive about Chelsea was that, having reinforced their advantage with Marcos Alonso’s freekick, they then simply shut Bournemouth out of the game. Conte, whose demand for improvement is clearly ceaseless, also stressed that N’Golo Kante’s assist for the Hazard goal underlined how even the likely Footballer of the Year can still improve.
“N’Golo has to improve,” said Conte. “If he is able to improve this situation, he is a top, top player. Every good coach, their real function is not only to win, but improve his players and to find the right way to work with them to improve physical and tactical aspects.”
It is something that Eddie Howe has also done so brilliantly for his Bournemouth players and notably King, who has now scored 13 Premier League goals this season.
“When we started to work together, I found him a great lad, really wanting to achieve, and we’ve just given him the opportunity,” said Howe. “He’s got all the attributes. Pace, strength, and he’s started to score goals on a regular basis. If he can continue to do that then he can go anywhere he wants.”