NEITHER Jose Mourinho or Antonio Conte have looked overly happy with their lot this season.
Two of the game’s managerial greats will today lead their teams out at Wembley ahead of an FA Cup final that offers one last hope of bagging some silverware.
But both have cut sullen and sulky figures for much of a campaign that has been dominated by Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Manchester City.
For Mourinho the attack list has been wide and varied. Those who deigned to criticise his cautious approach, particularly in the wake of United grinding out a goalless draw at Liverpool in the autumn, have been given short shrift.
So, too, have players he believes to be failing with the likes of Paul Pogba and Luke Shaw called out publicly. Even United supporters have not been immune to feeling the wrath of the Portuguese’s tongue thanks to his belief that Old Trafford is too quiet.
Conte, meanwhile, has become such a tiresome figure that it has been hard not to take the side of Roman Abramovich in what has been a war of attrition between manager and club over Chelsea’s recruitment policy last summer.
Today’s Cup final is expected to be the Italian’s last game in charge and English football will not miss someone who, just last season, had seemed a breath of fresh air to the Premier League.
Whether the Blues’ chief can go out on a high remains to be seen. But the 137th instalment of what used to be the highlight of the domestic season is certainly a fascinating one.
Much of that is down to Mourinho and Conte, and a feud that boiled over spectacularly at the start of the year as the pair traded verbal blows.
Mourinho suggesting he did not need to behave like “a clown”, a clear reference to Conte’s animated touchline persona, made it first blood to the Red Devils chief.
Back came Conte with an uppercut of his own, branding his United counterpart “demenza senile”.
“What never happened to me and will never happen to me is to be suspended for match-fixing,” was Mourinho’s stinging response.
Conte, cleared of any wrong-doing in a scandal that had rocked Italian football, again went on the attack. “A little man,” was his response to the slur, along with branding Mourinho a “fake” for his apparent show of support for sacked Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri.
Bad blood between the duo was nothing new. The previous summer Mourinho had chosen to mock Conte’s receding hairline as a player having turned into flowing locks as a manager by stating: “I am not going to lose my hair to speak about Antonio Conte.”
A ceasefire did break out ahead of Chelsea’s trip to Old Trafford in February, the apparent bonhomie for the cameras even extending to a handshake between the pair.
Come today’s first flashpoint, however, and we are likely to see a return to daggers drawn.
This third FA Cup final between the two clubs will probably be better for this mutual antipathy as it should bring an edge to proceedings that was largely missing from their previous meetings in 1994 and 2007. I was at both and neither game was truly befitting of the occasion.
The abiding memory, in fact, of the first final was not Eric Cantona’s two penalties in a 4-0 win for United or Gavin Peacock striking the crossbar for Chelsea when the score was goalless.
Instead, the walk up Wembley Way as fans, some so drunk they could hardly stand, traded insults and then punches is what most sticks in the mind.
That and being on Kilburn High Road a couple of hours before kick-off when hooligans were involved in running battles and the sense of menace in the air was almost suffocating. Magic of the Cup? Hardly.
Thankfully the re-match 13 years later passed off without the two sets of supporters turning north west London into a warzone.
The game itself, however, stunk out the new Wembley thanks to a clash of cultures – Mourinho’s pragmatism versus the flamboyance of Ronaldo, Rooney et al – cancelling each other out.
A dreary contest ensued that was only settled four minutes before the end of extra-time by Didier Drogba.
Mourinho’s involvement again today means there could well be a repeat.
Certainly, the United manager will be desperate to ensure the likes of Eden Hazard and Willian are shackled.
Chelsea’s flat ending to the season will give the Portuguese further hope of getting one over his rival. Expect United to do just that, more than likely after extra-time.