|By Okafor Joseph|March 14-2017- @- 07:28 GMT
The man with the hardest job in London last night – with due respect to junior doctors, the police and Jeremy Corbyn’s press officer – was Mike Jones, the fourth official at Stamford Bridge.
On a night when the Cup threatened to spill over with bad blood, Jones was the man tasked with keeping peace on the touchline. And when Jose Mourinho is on that touchline, with his personal pride at stake, that peace can never be guaranteed.
Around half an hour in, the chants began. “F*** off Mourinho, it’s all your fault,” sang the Chelsea fans at their former manager. Mourinho swivelled to face them, holding up three fingers: 2005, 2006, 2015. The three Premier League titles he won here. But the taunts continued to rain down, the last of them unanswerable. “We’re top of the league.”
A few years ago, Antonio Conte paid a visit to Chelsea’s training ground. He was spending a couple of weeks in England to observe how English clubs trained and learn a little of the language, perhaps with a view to managing here one day. Mourinho invited him to Cobham to watch a few sessions, and the pair chatted cordially. But then, Conte was the manager of Italy, and thus posed no imminent threat.
In the build-up to this match, it was clear that something had changed. “I am surprised with the way they play,” Mourinho said of Conte’s Chelsea. “I am surprised because I thought they were demanding a different kind of football. Chelsea are an amazing defensive team. They defend a lot, and then they kill opponents on the counter-attack.”
People say Mourinho deals in ‘mind games’. Yet the very concept implies a distinction between personal and sporting antipathy that is not especially relevant to Mourinho. His most infamous feuds – Arsène Wenger, Rafa Benítez, Pep Guardiola – may have originated in football, but turned so deeply personal that it is no longer prudent to separate them.
Here, again, a relationship that began with Conte proclaiming his “great respect” for Mourinho culminated in the pair squaring up to each other, fingers jabbing, faces contorted in fury, Italian oaths stinging the night air.
If Conte did not know how much Mourinho wanted to beat him beforehand, then United’s tactics would have given the game away. Four centre-backs. Phil Jones deployed as a terrifying midfield pitbull with specific instructions to kill or maim Eden Hazard. Paul Pogba, a £90m doorstop assigned to close down N’Golo Kanté.
Most of all Mourinho himself, his toes on the pitch, hopping and pointing and gesturing and applauding like a man to whom this all meant a lot more than a place in the FA Cup semi-final.
When plans go awry, the natural human instinct is to change something. When Chelsea started the season badly, Conte changed the system to a 3-4-3, instituted extra defensive drilling and crafted a team that should win the title.
By contrast, when Mourinho is cornered his first instinct is to become even more Mourinho.
This much was apparent when Ander Herrera – another player whose tendency towards snideness has been ruthlessly nurtured under Mourinho – was sent off. United’s players erupted in outrage. Not Mourinho. He merely laughed, and then pointed at Marouane Fellaini to get his tracksuit off.
A few minutes after that, when Antonio Valencia went in late on Marcos Alonso, Conte marched over to Mourinho, his face a picture of rage. This is what Mourinho does. He paints the world around him a darker shade of Mourinho.
Even if you have no intention of disliking him, Mourinho will make sure you do. The dislike of others is what fuels him.
But this was one argument Mourinho could never win. Kanté, evading the limp challenge of Pogba, popped up to score the only goal of the game. And as the Bridge sang for Conte, Mourinho looked grimly into the distance, hearing but not listening. These had been his players, this had been his team, and Conte’s office had once been his.
Yet Chelsea are now 30 points ahead of where they were at the same stage of Mourinho’s disastrous last season. They are cruising towards the title. And now they have put him out of the FA Cup.
Perhaps what riles Mourinho so much is not the differences between him and Conte, but the similarities. Conte is no dynasty-builder – the lack of youth in this team tells us that much – but the next time an impatient billionaire is looking to hire a manager for instant and guaranteed success, it will probably be Conte and not Mourinho to whom they turn first.
Superior in numbers, superior in organisation and superior in skill, Chelsea imperiously saw the game out. “You’re not special any more,” the Chelsea fans chided.
Mourinho did not respond this time. He simply waved his arms, like a general urging his battered troops into battle, when the war has already been lost.