Antonio Conte had just finished his latest contribution to the most vicious row of the Premier League era when he was invited to start another. Was there any temptation to pick up the phone and call Jose Mourinho, he was asked.
He looked ready to go again, to add to what had already been an astonishing sequence of comments, when Chelsea’s director of communications stepped in.
Enough had been said, it was explained, and at this point, in surveying the mouth-frothing progression from ‘clown’ to ‘senile’ to ‘match fixing’ to ‘little, little man’, who would disagree?
Except, it almost certainly will continue, particularly around the next meeting, when Manchester United host Chelsea on February 25. But what is interesting in all this bile is Conte’s withering onslaught on Mourinho after a dull 0-0 FA Cup draw at Norwich is yet another instance of the Portuguese taking a beating.
Indeed, just as he used to be a serial title winner, he was once also the master of the mouth.
Now, he is miles behind Pep Guardiola in the table, a winner of one league crown in the past five-and-a-half seasons, and he has been fronted up and knocked down by Conte in this row.
That is not to endorse some of Conte’s messages — what he said about senile dementia was tasteless — and none of this reflects that well on either of them. But it is telling on the matter of Mourinho’s diminishing aura that Conte is the first manager to stand up to him and give as much as he’s taken.
Arsene Wenger could never do it, through all that nasty ‘voyeur’ business and the ‘specialist in failure’ episode.
He still makes his retorts, usually a swipe about some point on football’s aesthetics and offers them with the odd smirk, but he has, in essence, been using Queensberry Rules against a street fighter holding a broken bottle.
Not an innocent party by any means, just ill-equipped to get down and dirty with a man who seems drawn to that kind of chaos.
The same goes for Guardiola, to a certain degree. In Spain, he hated these storms that Mourinho would whip up at Real Madrid, the fluff and noise that would cloud and shape narratives while Barcelona were busy winning the majority of trophies during their overlapping spells.
But it went beyond distaste and irritation — Zlatan Ibrahimovic quite famously told the Catalan ‘you are s******* yourself in front of Mourinho’ during one dressing room showdown.
Conte is a scrapper, though. At heart, he and Mourinho have that same snappy dog in them and where some managers can largely rise above Mourinho’s mid-life bitterness and swipes, Conte just isn’t that sort.
He touched on that during Friday’s round of mud-slinging, saying: ‘I am starting to be a bit annoyed because (talk about me) once, twice, but then the people who know me very well in Italy…’ He cut himself off, but the message was clear: Those who know Conte know he will bite.
Until Friday, after a season and a half at Chelsea, the 48-year-old’s teeth were never on display; now that they have come out, he is biting any limb within reach.
He called Mourinho out as a hypocrite on the subject of touchline behaviour. He called him out on the wildly inflammatory claim of match-fixing, of which Conte was cleared by an Italian court. He called him out as a ‘fake’ on the subject of Claudio Ranieri. He called him out as a ‘little man’.
It is hard to knock down Conte’s arguments on any of those scores. It is easy to interpret this whole saga as a bully finally taking one on the nose.
It is about one manager whose gripes and swipes stopped being fun and charming a long time ago and the arrival of another who is evidently more than willing to slap him around at his own game.
Not necessarily ideal, not what would be deemed sensible behaviour. But it is fascinating in its own cheap way and honest folk will admit it was far more interesting than this dull encounter at Carrow Road, too.
Norwich had their chances but didn’t take them, and Chelsea’s second string got better in the second half, if you’re interested.
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