Manuel Pellegrini falls for Jose Mourinho’s trap
Manchester City manager makes the mistake of getting involved in mind games
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho takes his team to the Etihad Stadium for an FA Cup fourth round tie with Manchester City. – Photograph: PA. Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho (left) and Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger (right).
In the end the only real surprise was the identity of the rival manager upon whom scorn was to be poured. Most had expected Jose Mourinho to resume his attempts to undermine Manuel Pellegrini, given Chelsea are due at the Etihad Stadium this 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 Arsene 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.
Beat about the bush
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.
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 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 speciality 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.
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 €15 million 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.
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 Benitez to Carlo Ancelotti, Pep Guardiola to Pellegrini, they have pretended to brush off the barbs 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 and later added: “If Mourinho is Jesus, then I am certainly not one of his apostles.”
Champions League final
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.
Familiarity bred contempt with Benitez, 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 Benitez’ 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 Barca 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 that it was hard not to conclude Mourinho had broken his man. “In this (press) room, (Mourinho) is the f**king boss, the f**king 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.
Pellegrini, who had become embroiled in an argument over whether City are adopting Mourinho’s own “fair financial fair play” criteria, pointedly refused yesterday 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.