Rivals face off at Wembley
United manager may have the last laugh over Chelsea’s Conte tomorrow
Jose Mourinho’s relationship with Antonio Conte has been acrimonious since they took the hot seats at Manchester United and Chelsea respectively, but the Portuguese can have the last laugh at Wembley tomorrow. Few FA Cup finals have been as eagerly awaited as this season’s, with both managers desperate to avoid the ignominy of ending the campaign with no silverware.
Mourinho did at least steer United to runners-up spot behind a peerless Manchester City in the Premier League, but Conte’s Chelsea trailed in fifth, and defeat in what is expected to be his final game in charge would be a bitter pill for the Italian.
Ever since Mourinho, Chelsea’s most successful manager, criticised Conte for his wild celebrations during Chelsea’s 4-0 rout of United in early 2016-17, the two have been trading insults, some more veiled than others.
Conte has criticised Mourinho’s spending at United and accused him of being obsessed with events at Stamford Bridge.
Mourinho upped the ante by labelling Conte’s touchline manner as clown-like and alluding to a match-fixing allegation of which Conte was eventually cleared in Italy.
Conte in turn called Mourinho a “little man” and “a fake”.
While things have cooled of late, there will be no love lost going into the climax of the domestic season tomorrow when United hope to join record-holders Arsenal with 13 FA Cup triumphs to their name.
Chelsea have not won the Cup since 2012, when Conte’s compatriot Roberto di Matteo was in charge.
Last season they were favourites going into the final – having already won the Premier League in Conte’s first season in charge – but fell flat, losing 2-1 to Arsenal.
No matter who is in charge of Chelsea next season, Spanish midfielder Cesc Fabregas said the only thing that counted now was to make sure the club ended a disappointing season on a high.
“We don’t have to think about next season, we need to win now,” he said.
“We can’t make [the season right] because the Champions League [qualification] is gone. “But to finish on a high would be nice.” Mourinho has not won the FA Cup since his first spell at Chelsea in 2007 – his only success in the competition.
While he would like nothing more than to lead United to victory against his old club, several of his players could also rub salt into Chelsea’s wounds too.
United’s Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku was deemed surplus to requirements by Chelsea, but has flourished at United, while midfielder Nemanja Matic was surprisingly allowed to join Mourinho at Old Trafford last season – a departure that seriously undermined Conte’s squad.
Chelsea’s Fabregas said he owed Mourinho a debt of gratitude for handing him a second chance in English soccer.
The Spanish midfielder will hope to ruin Mourinho’s day in tomorrow’s FA Cup final against Manchester United and salvage something from a disappointing campaign.
But win or lose, Fabregas, 31, said he was full of admiration for the man who signed him for Chelsea in 2014, during Mourinho’s second spell in charge at Stamford Bridge.
After three years at boyhood club Barcelona, following a move from Arsenal where Fabregas spent almost a decade, he proved a pivotal figure as Chelsea claimed the 2014-15 title, providing a league-leading 18 goal assists.
“I love him. I always say that. I owe him a lot because he brought me here. I will always remember that,” Fabregas said at Chelsea’s training ground this week.
“My first year here, [former Arsenal manager] Arsene [Wenger] had always treated me like a son.
“But the closest anyone has been to him was Jose.
“The way he treated me, the way he made me feel, how he let me be a leader of the team from day one.
“This was fantastic and in all the four years since I joined Chelsea, they will always stay with me. “This experience is thanks to him.” Yet Fabregas has spent a large part of his career in opposition to Mourinho – as he will do again at Wembley tomorrow when Chelsea hope to make up for finishing fifth in the Premier League with a first FA Cup win since 2012