LONDON (Reuters) – Such has been the war of words between Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte it is easy to forget that a vitally important top-four battle will break out on the Old Trafford pitch on Sunday.
From the moment Conte’s Chelsea thrashed Mourinho’s Manchester United 4-0 to kickstart their 2016-17 Premier League title charge, a simmering tension has existed between the pair, who both won the Premier League in their first season in England – and both with the London side.
This season the discord erupted into open dislike with insults flying backwards and forwards.
In October, Mourinho said Conte was the kind of manager who “they cry, they cry, they cry when a player is injured”, while Conte suggested the Portuguese was far too interested in what was going on at the club where he was once worshipped.
Mourinho’s comments in January that not “behaving like a clown on the touchline” did not betray a lack of passion appeared to be directed Conte’s way.
Even if it were not, Conte took the bait and hit back in no uncertain terms, accusing Mourinho of suffering from amnesia although his original remark, later clarified, spoke of “senile dementia”.
Mourinho stoked the fires by dragging up a 2011 match-fixing saga that Conte was implicated in.
“I think I will still make a few (mistakes). What never happened to me and will never happen is to be suspended for match-fixing,” Mourinho said.
Conte, who always denied any wrongdoing in that affair, was furious and described Mourinho as “a little man with a very low profile” as the bad blood began to boil.
So there would appear to be egos as well as points at stake this weekend as United and Chelsea strive to bolster their hopes of finishing in the top-four behind runaway Premier League leaders Manchester City.
United and Chelsea are four points and one point respectively above fifth-placed Tottenham Hotspur, who could ramp up the pressure by winning Sunday’s early kickoff at Crystal Palace.
The stakes will already be high enough without any pre-match trash talking as Mourinho will be desperate to avoid a fourth defeat in five matches against Chelsea since taking over at United in 2016.
He certainly will not want to hear the chants of “you’re not special any more” from Chelsea’s visiting fans — the same ones who lauded him for winning seven trophies in two spells as the Blues’ manager, including three league titles.
Victory, and a first league double over United for eight years, would see Chelsea move level on points with Mourinho’s side, with 10 games of the season remaining.
A win for United, however, would leave Chelsea glancing anxiously behind them.
“The next game is always the most important because it’s where you can get the three points,” Chelsea defender Cesar Azpilicueta said. “At the moment we are getting closer and closer to the end of the season, so we have to get the points.”
Chelsea may reap the benefit of having 24 hours more recovery time from their Champions League exertions, having drawn 1-1 with Barcelona at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.
United ground out a 0-0 draw in Sevilla on Wednesday, but will surely be more adventurous against Conte’s side.