There was war within a war, as if the main event was actually not enough. Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte waged it through Michael Jones, the 4th official, each dispensing their thinly concealed dislike of the other at him. There was a moment towards the end of the first half when they gave up the pretence of the proxy and screamed in each other’s face instead.
It has become so personal between Mourinho and Chelsea that he has given up all pretence of politeness. When a bunch of Chelsea supporters in the tight confines of the stadium told him, in so many words, to get lost, he raised three fingers at them behind his back – a reminder to them of the number of Premier League titles he has brought to this place.
That was before the sending off which torched the night, bringing a coral of Mourinho’s players around referee Michael Oliver, venting their collective indignation and taking us all the way back to Roy Keane and Co and official Andy D’Urso against Middlesbrough, 17 years ago. Conte said something to Phil Jones in that melee. “F*** off,” Jones told the Italian. He repeated it. “F*** off.”
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Conte actually seemed to be doing most of the detesting. When that open confrontation with Mourinho broke out, it was he who went furthest and looked like he was ready to punch the other man’s lights out. The Mourinho barbs have not escaped his attention in the past few months – the ones about Chelsea recharging their batteries during the long, European weeks and his allegations that Conte’s side are ‘only’ a counter-attacking team. You needed to be sitting in front of Conte last Friday to know how much Mourinho has got under his skin. ‘We are not a counter-attacking team,’ he said, a dozen times.
This war footing was not pretty to behold. The camera panned to Sir Bobby Charlton in the stand and you could not fail to wonder what he made of the United conflagration when Ander Herrera was sent off. Yet it was hard not to admire what Mourinho has imbued in his team. He introduced a new, pressing dimension, designed to squeeze the life out of Chelsea and though there was not much creative quality to underpin it, the players rarely looked less than monumentally committed.
United needed Mourinho’s ministry because when it came down to it, it was a mismatch of playing resources. United’s lack of striking options had been foretold but springing Marcus Rashford out of the hat to start – his supposed illness a phantom one – did not make a great impact. The teenager was bundled out of a game which confirmed the manager’s conviction that he is not the finished article. There was a sumptuous spin around Gary Cahill on 51 minutes which sent him through on Thibaut Courtois but the 19-year-old’s shot struck the goalkeeper. Those moments were too rare for United to squander one.
The sending off of Ander Herrera was a substantial part of United’s failure to create more, of course. The removal of Henrikh Mkhitaryan for Marouane Fellaini in the ensuing reshuffle robbed the visiting team of one of its few creative entities. But Paul Pogba could not prove a creative fulcrum either. He had resorted to hauling down his man N’golo Kante, by the end. We still await the day when United can depend on Pogba to command and lead as Keane once did. Herrera, unfortunate to be dismissed for a second yellow card which was so marginal, does so with much more consistency.
The irony of Eden Hazard playing quite so brilliantly was lost on no one. This was the player whom Mourinho alienated most in his second spell here. Chelsea did not extend the deficit, though, despite their superior numbers and an equaliser remaining a possibility until the end, as United’s five-man defence organised itself to repel advances. Their manager marched off onto the pitch at the end, steadfastly avoiding contact with Conte, who seemed to be in a vain pursuit. The defeat will pain Mourinho more than he tells but United under his tutelage are a side to fear again.