It’s been there, all season, not at the forefront but definitely bubbling away in the background. Jose Mourinho hasn’t really had any direct swipes at Antonio Conte but he has offered almost a constant stream of passive-aggressive comments, covering everything from how ‘some teams’ have benefited from a lack of European football to how they have also supposedly been praised for the type of counter-attacking football he has been criticised for.
Beyond doing things like matter-of-factly clarifying that he has “never, ever” played counter-attacking football, Conte hasn’t really had offered many responses. He’s mostly maintained a dignified politeness.
That is of course because Chelsea have been there themselves, for the vast majority of the season, streaking away at the top of the table. That says more than anything ahead of their trip to Manchester United this Sunday.
There are still some close to the Chelsea squad who feel that Mourinho’s comments have irritated Conte more than the Stamford Bridge boss has let on, especially when you consider some of the minor slights that triggered him into major responses back with Juventus, and that he is merely waiting for the moment of maximum superiority - like winning the title - to properly respond.
Others would deny this, and the Italian himself almost dismissed the very merit of such comments when asked whether he has not been tempted to have a go back.
“Look, many coaches try to manipulate the ideas and try to put your thoughts… in the way they want," Conte said on Friday. "But it’s not important for me. It’s important to continue to work and have our idea of football.”
If you wanted to disappear down the rabbit hole of mind games, you could of course say that itself is an intelligently subtle barb, as one possible inference is that managers like Mourinho have to say such things to fundamentally justify the fact they are not winning; to get their ‘spin’ out there. There might also be a grain of truth in that.
It might also seem so superficial to dwell on the personality of the managers and the pantomime of off-pitch comments ahead of such matches, but the reality is that all of this feels like it is about much more than ‘mind games’, given how much of it reflects the reality of what is actually happening on the pitch.
It’s certainly difficult not to think Mourinho himself has been especially irritated by Chelsea’s resurgence because of what it says about his own management. While United’s progress has been the subject of so much debate, that of the league leaders has been inarguable. Conte’s “idea of football” has been a resounding success, vindicated by so many victories, with only five now needed to definitively claim the title in his debut season. That, of course, used to be Mourinho: the fresh new manager, charming so many people and winning so many games.
That is also why this Sunday’s match might mean more to the Portuguese than it does to Conte, even allowing for the necessities of the races for the title and top four. In a season that has seen such debate about Mourinho’s own “idea of football”, how significant and symbolic would it be for him to lose all three games to his old team and their new manager? It would also be the finest response of all from Conte, leaving him barely needing to say a thing.
Mourinho then needs a statement on the pitch, but it probably reveals a lot about United’s issues this season that it’s hard to know how they’re going to go about it. It reveals a lot about Chelsea’s success this season, meanwhile, that we know exactly how they’re going to go about it. There is such an uncomplicated and unyielding clarity to Conte’s game, as even Mourinho had to admit on the eve of the game.
“It’s not for no reason that they are top of the league,” the United boss said. “It’s not just because they’re fresh but they have individual quality and they have collective quality. They have a certain style of play, they stick to it, they do it very well.”
That comment also touched on the fact we pretty much know who Chelsea will play, too, even if there may be some decision over whether it should be the finesse of Cesc Fabregas in the middle or the force of Nemanja Matic. That choice will be made entirely on the basis of tactics, though, because Conte has no injury worries. The lack of European football has undeniably helped in that regard, even if the Italian was also right on Friday - in another of those matter-of-fact clarifications - that it would be a “great mistake” to solely put his side’s supreme season down to that.
Competing in the Europa League isn’t the only reason Mourinho has selection worries of his own, but it hasn’t helped. Even beyond the effect on the general fitness and freshness of his players, he has to balance their use between the various games, and also has to find a balance for this game.
There would be no better response or win for Mourinho, after all, than if United went out and played the proactive football he is supposed to have prioritised this season; to finally take the chances they have been missing for so long to really take Chelsea down.
Would someone who so regularly looks to first and foremost lock big games down really allow that, though? Would that even be prudent against a Chelsea side so ruthlessly productive on the counter-attack? Would Mourinho really run that risk?
On the other hand, how would yet another constrained display look, especially if it ends in yet another draw? Is this not the time to make the biggest statement of all? Is this not the time to be aggressive on the pitch?
All of this is likely to be further charged by what happens in other games, especially if Tottenham Hotspur beat Bournemouth. If that happens, Mourinho has the chance to deliver a proper blow, and reduce the gap in the title race to a mere four points with six games left. If Spurs don’t win, Conte has the chance to make the biggest leap to the Premier League trophy yet, and do so on the Old Trafford pitch.
Either way, their interactions will be at the forefront of the day, most of all for what they reflect about the game itself.