Friday 14 February 2014 22.30 GMT
In the end the only real surprise was the identity of the rival manager upon whom scorn was to be poured. Most had expected José Mourinho to resume his attempts to undermine Manuel Pellegrini, given Chelsea are due at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday evening for an FA Cup fifth-round tie and a resumption of recent hostilities. Instead, infuriated by some matter-of-fact observations made earlier on Friday morning by Arsène Wenger round the M25 at London Colney, the Portuguese ditched all pretence of that “truce” with the Frenchman and targeted an old adversary for an all-out attack.
So those managers, and only by implication Chelsea’s principal among them, who refused to acknowledge their side as title contenders this season were saddled by a “fear to fail”, were they? “He is a specialist of failure, I’m not,” countered Mourinho. And so it began again, a laceration of Wenger’s recent tenure across the capital provoked, almost entirely, by the latter’s use of the word “fail” as he contemplated the tightest title race in years. The Chelsea manager, fresh from the deluge outside at Cobham, had been slightly delayed en route to the media conference room and, with the coach due to leave the training ground mid-afternoon for the trip to Manchester, had been in no mood to beat about the bush. He had a message to deliver, not a 120-page dossier like last time, and limited time in which to do it.
As an assassination of one of the most highly respected managers in the English game this was brutal and delivered as if it was 2005 all over again. The soundbite quality– made for Twitter, let alone yellow tickers or newspaper headlines – suggested it was all prepared and designed for maximum impact. The humour which has accompanied his press briefings this term was absent. Beyond Wenger’s recently acquired specialty there was an admission that, had Mourinho gone even four years without winning a trophy, he would have “left London and not come back”; that true failure was actually “not winning a title in seven or eight years”. There was dismay, too, that Wenger still “loves to look at this football club” from afar, to stir up memories of the original “voyeur” comments directed at his opposite number over eight years ago. Mourinho regrets having used those words then, but, in his eyes, the essence of his criticism was legitimate. “At the end of the day I’ll be seen as the ‘impolite guy’,” he added. He had certainly ditched his moniker of “the happy one” for the afternoon.
Around the world, where the Portuguese acknowledged his words would resonate, many will sigh wearily at the familiarity of it all. Mourinho is box office because he launches himself into spats like this, refusing to turn the other cheek but fighting his club’s, and his own, corner. It can be unsavoury and, at times, lowers the tone, infuriating rival fans as much as it does opposing managers, but it adds to the intrigue of the title race. The Portuguese has always been a master of the killer line, manipulating the media in various languages in the knowledge that his charisma will invariably win the day, and he recognises that even his most spurious arguments can deflect attention from reality. The suggestions that Pellegrini, a qualified civil engineer, was in need of a calculator earlier this week were accepted despite the fact Mourinho, in omitting Kurt Zouma’s £12m signing from St Etienne, had actually erred in his own addition, though his point about his club’s January profit would still have stood.
Likewise his assertions that Jack Wilshere (22), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (20) and Kieran Gibbs (24) should be considered “mature” while referring regularly to Oscar (22), Eden Hazard (23) or Willian (25) as “kids” do not necessarily stand up to scrutiny. Then there is Liverpool who, as Mourinho has pointed out, do not have European football to stretch their squad in the four-team title race. But even Brendan Rodgers, appointed as a youth-team coach at Chelsea during Mourinho’s first spell at the club and still a close friend, dismissed his team’s apparent sudden elevation. “It’s getting stupid now, isn’t it?” he said. “José made a comment when I first came to Liverpool that the conditions meant it would be a miracle for us to win the league, and I don’t think over the past 18 months things have changed that much.”
He laughed off the “mind games” in play. Others have failed to do likewise, for all their attempts to remain impervious to the Mourinho effect. From Rafael Benítez to Carlo Ancelotti, Pep Guardiola to Pellegrini, they have pretended to brush off the barbs smiling through all the digs, but eventually he has got to them all. Ancelotti, such a genial character, endured only a year as Milan’s manager in direct competition to Mourinho’s Internazionale, though that was enough. He referred to his rival as “his Mourinho-ness” and “the High Lord Specialness” in his autobiography, Preferisco la Coppa, and later added: “If Mourinho is Jesus, then I am certainly not one of his apostles.” The references to the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul, suggestions that the Italian was a member of “the establishment clan” or public hints that Milan’s owner, Silvio Berlusconi, was allowed to pick the Rossoneri’s team had hit the mark. When Ancelotti’s Chelsea were drawn with Mourinho’s Inter in the knock-out phase of the Champions League four years ago, even the Italian had bristled uncomfortably ahead of the tie. “He’s a fantastic coach,” he said, “but I’m not going to discuss his character.”
Familiarity bred contempt with Benítez, the Spaniard’s Liverpool side colliding with Chelsea 16 times over the Portuguese’s initial spell in English football, with the pair’s tussles in the Champions League particularly inflammatory. Even now there is the occasional disdain for the Europa League, or even the team’s tactical approach, which harks back to Benítez’s spell in interim charge in the capital last season. Yet Mourinho’s ability to seek out the most potent threat to his own team’s progress and unnerve those in charge was most apparent in the ferocity of the Real Madrid/Barcelona rivalry. Guardiola put up with it for a year – the conspiracy theories of Barça favouritism and the questioning of the legitimacy of their 2009 European Cup win, given Tom Henning Ovrebo’s refereeing display in the semi-final in “the scandal of Stamford Bridge”.
Then in April 2011, before a Champions League semi-final between the clubs, he snapped with a rant so out of character – if apparently pre-meditated – that it was hard not to conclude Mourinho had broken his man. “In this [press] room, [Mourinho] is the fucking boss, the fucking master. I don’t want to compete with him for a moment [for that]. Off the pitch he is the winner – but this is a game of football.” Barcelona won the game 2-0 the following day but Guardiola had been worn down. He had never had much of an appetite for this kind of fight. Zlatan Ibrahimovic later revealed in his autobiography that he had berated his manager after a game at Villarreal. “I yelled to him: ‘You have no balls!’ and probably worse things than that,” he wrote. “And I added: ‘You’re shitting yourself about Mourinho!'” Some pointed to Guardiola’s departure for a sabbatical as evidence that the Portuguese had won.
The one oddity in all this remains Sir Alex Ferguson, a rival with whom the Chelsea manager apparently enjoyed a friendship. Maybe that was a superficial alliance. Possibly the older man was cute enough to make it known he would never allow raw emotion to overcome him in the way others were overwhelmed. Regardless, Mourinho still reacts almost incredulously when talk of “mind games” and deliberate targeting of the threat crops up.
Pellegrini, who had become embroiled in an argument over whether City are adopting Mourinho’s own “fair financial fair play” criteria, pointedly refused on Friday to discuss the man he will confront in the technical areas at the Etihad Stadium. It was as if he was administering his own slap on the wrist for being provoked over the last month. “But if he doesn’t like to speak about me, perfect,” said Mourinho. “I also don’t like to speak about other managers. I think he’s right. So if he doesn’t want to speak about me, that’s perfect.”
Whether Wenger can prove as thick-skinned remains to be seen. Even he might wonder now if the time has come to take Sam Allardyce’s lead when it comes to verbal jousts with the Impolite One. “He can’t take it because we’ve out-tactic-ed him, out-witted him,” the West Ham manager had concluded after all those criticisms of “nineteenth-century football” last month. “He just can’t cope. He can tell me all he wants. I don’t give a shite.”