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Some of Jose Mourinho’s most meaningful comments can come in defeat. If Manchester United were rarely incisive away from home against the top six last season, their manager was. He had been barracked by the Chelsea fans who used to idolise him, exiting the FA Cup to a team who were running away with the Premier League title. Antonio Conte was threatening to erase his 95-point record from the division’s history books.
Mourinho was acerbic, egotistical, perceptive and right. “Until the moment they have a manager that wins four Premier Leagues for them, I’m the number one,” he said. “When they have somebody that wins four Premier Leagues for them, I become number two. Until this moment Judas is number one.”
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That was last March. Fast forward 11 months and look forward to Sunday’s rematch at Old Trafford and it is rather clearer that ‘Judas’, as he had been christened in chants after a touchline clash with Conte, will remain number one, not just Chelsea’s greatest manager but their defining one.
Because with Conte’s exit in the summer appearing ever more probable, his only chance to displace Mourinho from his premier position in the pantheon is to win the Champions League. Conte displayed his tactical prowess against Barcelona, but Tuesday’s 1-1 draw still leaves his team facing the exit. Changing the narrative does not just entail prevailing at the Nou Camp but plotting a path past three more of the European elite; can an inconsistent side deprived of Conte’s preferred signings beat, say, Real Madrid, Manchester City and Bayern Munich as well?
Conquer Europe and England and Conte has a case to be No. 1; that could trump Mourinho’s three Premier Leagues. As it is, Chelsea’s only Champions League winner is Roberto Di Matteo, the caretaker who provided the improbable outlier. If it may grate with Mourinho, a four-time Champions League semi-finalist with Chelsea, that a comparative rookie with an otherwise undistinguished record made off with the major honour, he may nevertheless prefer it to seeing the accolades go to a genuine rival.
Which is what Conte has become. Mourinho’s reception at Stamford Bridge last season showed how Chelsea’s greatest manager has become a divisive figure, rather than the returning hero who was welcomed back in his days as Inter manager. His January row with Conte suggests the Italian can expect a more visceral response at Old Trafford this season than last; Mourinho said he held the younger man “in contempt” after he was branded “a little man” and a “fake”, with Conte suggesting he had senile dementia.
Mourinho had responded by referencing match-fixing, aware of Conte’s ban for failing to report an attempt at it, though he has maintained his innocence. If neither man emerged with reputation enhanced by an unseemly verbal squabble, there is more than one way to win an argument.
The Portuguese could appear the victor by default as the last man standing. He is likely to remain in English football next season; Conte will probably not. Like Sir Alex Ferguson before him, Mourinho has claimed vindication and moral superiority from results. He may well end this season in a higher Premier League place and having gone further in the Champions League; while Conte has a winning record in their meetings and they may yet clash again at Wembley in the FA Cup, Mourinho could nonetheless position himself as the triumphant survivor.
And Judas could remain in pole position for quite some time to come. Mourinho’s five-and-a-half years at Chelsea, spread over two spells, is three-and-a-half years more than anyone else has managed in the Roman Abramovich era. And, as anyone with as mathematical a mind as Mourinho can compute, it is hard to win four Premier League titles in two years. Perhaps Carlo Ancelotti will be amenable enough to return for a second spell at some point, but Chelsea’s other champion still stands someway behind Mourinho.
Because he remains emblematic of the modern Chelsea. He and Abramovich created the club’s culture. Conte has changed much – the system and the personnel, with some of Mourinho’s stalwarts leaving in his reign – and engineered arguably the most remarkable of their five Premier League wins, but some things stay the same: a pragmatic style of play and a short-termist approach towards managers that renders it harder for anyone to create a dynasty, survive a fallow period or reinvent the club.
Factor in the changes in finances and the way that the days of Chelsea outspending everyone else appear to be over and Conte’s successors could face a tougher test to overhaul the Manchester clubs when they have a bigger budget and better squads. It gives Mourinho an advantage in a bid to preserve his status. The context has changed. So it may be harder for Conte’s eventual replacement to emulate him and easier for Mourinho to go back to Stamford Bridge in future seasons as the pantomime villain with the same message: Judas is still number one.