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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Antonio Conte simply the latest managerial successor to be in Jose Mourinho's firing line

Chelsea manager has engaged in a war of words with his Manchester United counterpart, who has plenty of previous with other managers.

Jose Mourinho, left, and Antonio Conte, right, have been engaged in an escalating war of words in recent weeks. John Sibley / Reuters
Jose Mourinho, left, and Antonio Conte, right, have been engaged in an escalating war of words in recent weeks. John Sibley / Reuters

Somewhere out in the sand dunes of Peru, Andre Villas-Boas would be forgiven for having a quiet chuckle to himself, above the noise of engines, on hearing about the latest Punch and Judy show at the top of English football.

Villas-Boas, formerly the most precocious manager in the elite end of the game, is currently driving through South America as a contestant in the Dakar Rally. It’s an examination of calmness under pressure for which verbal spats with Jose Mourinho may have helped prepare him.

Four and half years ago, Villas-Boas, then the 35-year-old manager of Tottenham Hotspur, went up against Mourinho for the first time as an opponent, for Spurs versus Chelsea. Predictably, he got involved in the sort of squabble, via press conference, that Mourinho, now the Manchester United manager, and Chelsea’s Antonio Conte are engaged in.

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The Portuguese pair had a long history, with Villas-Boas part of Mourinho’s support staff during the older man’s ascent through Portuguese, English and Italian football.

But the mentor and apprentice grew apart, and when Villas-Boas started getting the very jobs as a manager – at Porto, then at Chelsea - that Mourinho had had, their differences became public.

The issue was that they started being compared, and being likened to Mourinho tends to lead to punches and jabs delivered through the media. It is a familiar pattern. What Villas-Boas achieved at Porto – a domestic double plus the Europa League in his full season – had him lauded as a Mini-Mourinho, the "Special Two", admired everywhere except in the opinion of his former boss.

“If you have a good team, and Porto have a good team, you are [domestic] champions,” Mourinho said, brushing off Villas-Boas’ Portuguese title. “After that, the point is if you win the Champions League or not.”

Mourinho won the Champions League with Porto. No other manager has done that this century.

Mourinho derided Villas-Boas, who spent less than a season at Chelsea, as "a kid". He belittled another manager who had succeeded him at Porto, Jesualdo Ferreira, as quite the opposite - “a man with a 30-year career who has never won anything.”

Jesualdo, who once taught Mourinho, “would not be remembered at the end of his career”, Mourinho sneered, “his is the story of a donkey who never became a horse”.

Mourinho, who last week referenced Conte’s past investigation in an Italian match-fixing case – Conte was exonerated – as part of an escalating exchange of snarls between the current and former Chelsea managers, has an ample history of toxic fall-outs.

But the ones that endure tend to be with men who have been in jobs Mourinho used to hold. For Chelsea, where Mourinho has worked in two spells and won three Premier League titles, read Villas-Boas, Conte and Claudio Ranieri, whom Mourinho derided for his low yield of titles, for his limited spoken English, and for his age.

Then there’s Rafa Benitez, a long-time target. “At Inter, in six months he destroyed the best team in Europe,” Mourinho said of Benitez’s time as his successor in Milan.

As for Real Madrid, Mourinho scorned Manuel Pellegrini, who he later re-encountered, frostily, in England. Pellegrini had preceded Mourinho at Madrid, and, in Mourinho’s eyes, Pellegrini’s next move, to Malaga, looked like a demotion. “If Madrid get rid of me, I will go to a big club,” he boasted.

Mourinho even informed a public squabble with Graeme Souness, whose punditry upset him a couple of years ago, with a charged remark about their shared history at Benfica, where Mourinho started his career as a manager.

Mourinho achieved little in his short time there, but still taunted Souness with the sly remark: “I coached Benfica after he left, so I know about him, so much about him. He is clearly a frustrated man.”

So Conte, who has achieved with Chelsea just what Mourinho did - a title in his first season - anticipated joining that long line of antagonists. The Italian has chosen to respond in kind. Even if this row goes quiet for a while, it is only simmering, ready to boil up again.