Conte vs. Mourinho: Looking behind the banter

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Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte have had a little back and forth over the weekend.

Grab your popcorn.

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Initially Mourinho gave an answer packed with innuendo when discussing Chelsea following Manchester United’s 2-0 win against Watford at the weekend.

That victory extended United’s unbeaten run in the Premier League to 16 games but Mourinho handed table-topping Chelsea a compliment when discussing the Red Devils’ title hopes.

Well, sort of.

“Chelsea are a very good defensive team,” Mourinho said. “They defend very well and with lots of players and I think in this situation a very defensive team wins the title with counter-attack goals and set pieces goals so I don’t think they will let it slip but football is football.”

Ah, Jose. You rascal.

In response to Mourinho’s comments, Chelsea’s manager shared his thoughts following their 1-1 draw at Turf Moor on Sunday.

“He’s playing,” Conte said. “I have the experience to understand this. I don’t like to reply about the other coaches.”

Stone cold Conte.

Now, this may be nothing more than a few words exchanged between coaches in the media. Yet Mourinho knows that his comments about Chelsea will be repeated to Conte and as he tried to crank up the pressure on the Blues. It’s worth a shot, right?

After all United are 12 points behind Chelsea with 13 games of the season to go and Mourinho’s former club, who he led to three of their previous four PL titles, seem to be cantering towards a crown in Conte’s first season in charge.

That said, just like the old days of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger going at it back and forth, this rivalry has the potential to blow up in the coming months and years. Conte has somehow managed to rekindle title-winning form from a group of players who seemed to have downed tools under Mourinho last season, leading to his firing as Chelsea boss and Conte’s subsequent hiring.

With Mourinho set to spend big again this summer and slowly building momentum this season to challenge for a top four finish (United sit in sixth place but are just two points off second after the weekend games) these two managers and teams look set to challenge for the title side-by-side.

Remember when Chelsea beat United 3-0 earlier this season and Conte irked Mourinho for firing up the home crowd when the Red Devils were down and out? Yeah, there was a spark there as Mourinho had a word in Conte’s ear. You could see it in the eyes of the Italian manager.

There’s respect between Mourinho and Conte though. That’s obvious. Even Fergie and Wenger have admitted they appreciated the work of one another.

Last week Conte made a point of stating United are still in the title race. Then Mourinho complimented Conte’s defensive system and if anyone can appreciate good defensive play, it’s Mourinho.

It’s all very cordial right now. Perhaps too cordial.

You get the sense that if both clubs stay on their current trajectory then a managerial rivalry is brewing between Mourinho and Conte.

Hang on. There we go. My popcorn is ready.