LONDON – Jose Mourinho returns to Chelsea on Sunday and it is the safest of bets that Saturday’s press conference will fire the first bullets ahead of a match neither side can afford to lose. Antonio Conte will inevitably be in Mourinho’s sights, but to the many targets for the Vitriolic One was added Manchester United fans, which surely completes the full set as there can be no one else left for him to criticize.
The pressure is mounting on the chasing pack and by the time the game at StamfordBridge kicks off, if Manchester City beats Arsenal, then United would trail the leader by eight points with Chelsea 12 points in Team Guardiola’s wake.
Conte has already won the Premier League title, though Chelsea is unlikely to retain it. Mourinho is expected to deliver the English crown for Manchester United, but a familiar foe stands in his way. Just as Mourinho was up against a Barcelona side that raised the bar with its new brand of football when he was at Real Madrid, Pep Guardiola is once again his record-breaking nemesis at Manchester City. It is difficult to know which is Mourinho’s toughest opponent — the traditions of United built on exciting, attacking football or Guardiola, whose team was stunning in the 4-2 demolition of Serie A leader Napoli on Wednesday.
While both men are winners, in many respects they could hardly be more different. For Guardiola the result is what he called “an empty thing,” little more than temporary enjoyment. “I’m happy for the next two days (with the result) and I get less criticism plus more time to improve my team,” he said. “But what satisfies me the most in my job is to feel emotions, the way we play.”
This is a long way from Mourinho’s world and the Portuguese is concerned only about winning, which for him is the ultimate, perhaps even the only entertainment and enjoyment.
Mourinho’s”non-football” approach has seen United back in the title race — so far — for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson left in 2013. Last season he delivered the League Cup and Europa League, but he knows they are sideshows because United brought him to Old Trafford to win the Premier League and Champions League.
The pragmatic style that initially brought Mourinho success in winning domestic titles (FC Porto, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Chelsea first time around) and the Champions League (FC Porto and Inter Milan) is no longer as effective, especially in the big games. During his second spell in charge of Chelsea and now at United, Mourinho’s record in his last 11 away matches against title rivals is poor. He has failed to win a match, his teams have lost six and picked up five points with 0-0 draws.
Mourinho has not won any of the last 10 away matches that his sides have played at Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham. His team has not even scored in the last nine of those. United’s last 14 matches at Chelsea have been: D-L-L-L-D-L-D-L-D-W-L-L-D-L — the W was against a Chelsea team that had two players sent off.
Mourinho still believes his way is best and media criticism of his safety first approach has not gone down well, though he will not change his methods or his adversarial approach to just about everyone, not least opposing managers. Last month, Mourinho clearly had a dig at Conte, though not naming him, for moaning about injuries. “Our philosophy is not to moan, to cry (about injuries),” said the United manager. Really?
Rewind to last April when United’s mounting injury problems meant it was “in trouble” according to Mourinho, going into the season’s decisive weeks without Marcos Rojo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Juan Mata. “We are in trouble,” said Mourinho. “In this moment, Eric Bailly played six matches in a row — 540 minutes in a row. We lost Marcos Rojo. We don’t have Jones, we don’t have Smalling. We are in trouble. Now we lose Zlatan too.”
If there is no confrontation, Mourinho will invent some. It is almost a drug for thePortuguese who cannot live without verbal sparring and seems to endure football rather than enjoy it. He rarely smiles, apart from a sarcastic grin when a referee fails to award United a decision in its favor.
Romelu Lukaku has gone six matches without a goal, though there has been no anti-Lukaku negativity among United supporters. Mourinho somehow believed there was and said the striker was an “untouchable.” Last season the contradictory one said no one in his squad was “untouchable.”
Some United fans booed last Sunday when Marcus Rashford was replaced by Anthony Martial, who went on to score the winner against Tottenham, thus vindicating Mourinho’s decision. In his program notes for the Champions League match against Benfica on Tuesday, Mourinho wrote: “I hope you enjoy the game more than some of you (supporters) did against Tottenham.”
Criticizing your own fans, who pay exorbitant sums to follow the club, always comes back to haunt you, but Mourinho simply cannot help himself.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.