Antonio Conte must forget Jose Mourinho spat and focus on Chelsea
The Chelsea soap opera is once again proving to be ratings winner as viewers from all over the world tune in to follow the latest drama unfolding at Stamford Bridge.
Having guided the Blues to the Premier League title in his first season, Antonio Conte has become embroiled in a war of words with former boss Jose Mourinho. It's not only escalating rapidly out of control but also possibly starting to affect the Italian's focus if Saturday's dour 0-0 draw at Championship strugglers Norwich City in the FA Cup is anything to go by.
Conte made nine changes to the side that drew 2-2 with Arsenal in the Premier League last Thursday, but his selection for the Norwich game looked flawed as a starting XI featuring a mix of fringe players and bench-warmers failed to gel. Chelsea's uninspiring, shot-shy first half performance was screaming out for changes to be made at the interval, but instead Conte left his substitutions late and they proved ineffective. The draw leaves the Blues with another fixture to add to an already cluttered January schedule.
With another encounter with Arsenal looming, this time in the semifinal of the Carabao Cup, Conte was always expected to rotate his team against Norwich. But the hopes of many Chelsea supporters the Italian would give starts to the motivated youngsters were dashed. Instead Ethan Ampadu, Jake Clarke-Salter, Charly Musonda and Dujon Sterling were joined by Callum Hudson-Odoi on the bench at Carrow Road where they watched a returning and rusty David Luiz toil alongside Kenedy and Michy Batshuayi -- a trio of players whose futures at the club are questionable.
The fact that in his postmatch news conference an irate-looking Conte was soon sucked back into the Mourinho maelstrom was evidence enough that the increasingly combustible Italian's train of thought is being severely distracted by the ever-abrasive Portuguese.
Sacked by Chelsea in December 2015, Mourinho's unceremonious departure and subsequent appointment as Manchester United manager less than six months later was always likely to provide a platform for potential controversy when the two sides next met.
October 2016 saw the Blues thrash United 4-0 and with it the hostilities between Mourinho and Conte started. Conte's touchline celebrations wound up Mourinho enough for the United manager to have an angry word in his rival's ear at the final whistle.
Having won three Premier League titles, the FA Cup and three League Cups in two stints as Chelsea manager, Mourinho, once adored at Stamford Bridge, must have found it galling to return to his former fiefdom. He not only saw his new charges played off the park, but also had to listen to his former fans chant the name of their new manager.
In March 2017, a brutish FA Cup encounter between the sides saw Conte and Mourinho having to be separated as matters on the pitch became heated. United's Ander Herrera was dismissed for two fouls on Eden Hazard and after Chelsea's 1-0 victory, Conte criticised what he viewed as thuggish non-football tactics deployed by Mourinho.
After Chelsea had won the Premier League, Conte's throwaway line that the Blues needed to avoid a "Mourinho season" -- a reference to the club's cataclysmic and rapid demise under the Portuguese after his emphatic 2015 title triumph -- provoked a bizarre response as Mourinho mocked Conte's hair transplant.
The spat continued on and off for months before spiralling in the past week during which Mourinho claimed Conte's touchline behaviour was clown-like. Conte retorted by saying Mourinho had senile dementia to which Mourinho responded with a comment about match-fixing, a pointed reference to the Italian who had been acquitted of any wrong-doing following a four-month ban for failing to report match-fixing during his time as Siena manager. Understandably, this jibe infuriated Conte, who labelled Mourinho a "little man".
Mourinho's increasingly barbed invective has seriously tarnished his silverware-laden legacy at Chelsea and is destabilising for the Blues as both men seem hell-bent on pursuing a course of action which is likely to end in front of the FA disciplinary committee long before the two sides clash in the Premier League on Feb. 25.
While Mourinho seems unable to help himself, he is no longer Chelsea's problem. Conte though needs to lock himself in a dark room, have a quiet word with himself, refocus on his job managing the club and figure out how to get past Arsenal in the League Cup semifinal and Norwich in the FA Cup replay.
As their battle continues, there is only going to be one winner and that is Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. City are running away with the Premier League and remain on course for an unprecedented quadruple. With Guardiola free from petulant distractions, City's chances of ending the campaign with a significant haul of silverware have to be greater than both United's and Chelsea's.
That won't be lost on the owners of both clubs, who are no doubt cringing with embarrassment at the controversy surrounding their respective managers.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco