Conte's Chelsea tenure starting to mirror that of rival Jose Mourinho
It is no secret that Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho do not care for each other
"I have respect for his job, he must have respect for mine," Chelsea's manager said on Friday, doing his best to straight-bat a series of questions about his Manchester United counterpart while not exactly offering an olive branch to his predecessor.
Sunday at Stamford Bridge will see if such respect is returned by Mourinho, who has fired repeated barbs at Chelsea since his departure, and even made sly digs about Conte's hair transplant.
The latter came in response to Conte's preseason pledge that he wanted to "avoid the Mourinho season", a reference to the slump that followed winning the 2014-15 Premier League title and precipitated the Portuguese's sacking. Now, after Tuesday's 3-0 loss to Roma continued a troubled opening to the season, the Italian is probably developing a new understanding of what can start happening to a Chelsea manager.
Were they on better terms, Mourinho and Conte might start comparing notes on life at the Bridge: an unsatisfactory summer of transfer business; a hastily signed contract that few believe Conte will see out; a culture clash over the club's FA Youth Cup-winning youngsters; a series of rumours over who the next manager might be. All that and Roman Abramovich making a surprise appearance at the training ground, as the owner did last Sunday.
Each are happenings that Mourinho could readily recall from his two spells in West London.
"Bulls---," exclaimed Conte last week, confronted by tales of Carlo Ancelotti being lined up to return and players text messaging former coach Steve Holland to gripe about training methods. This was far less subtle than Mourinho's often oblique drive-bys on critics and perceived enemies but the meaning was the same.
Chelsea can make managers' skins thin and especially when the predecessor is a vocal, visible presence. Their paths to reaching the top of the coaching tree were rather different, with Conte a garlanded former Juventus captain compared to Mourinho, who made his way from the lower reaches of Portuguese football, but they actually have much else in common besides. For starters, Mourinho's derisions of Chelsea's football being defensive and based on counter-attacking approach the realms of hypocrisy.
In looking to replace Mourinho, Chelsea did not go down the usual route of turning to someone who might be the complete opposite of the previous incumbent. Though an ongoing rivalry would not allow them to admit it, the men who will be trying to avoid each other's gaze on Sunday are managers cut from a similar mould.
Both demand absolute control of their playing staff, and the structures around that, leading to the clashes both have had with Chelsea's hierarchy -- there is current friction between Mourinho and United executives, too. They share the qualities of being rigorous in pre-match planning for the opposition, something the more laissez-faire Ancelotti, for example, does not care for, and expect players to be adaptable within an aggressive brand of football. Neither are slow to make sweeping changes to a team during matches that are not going according to plan with in-game management a considerable strength for both.
Most of all, Mourinho and Conte share the courage of their convictions, pairing their technical preparation with a motivational whirlwind inside, which stragglers will not survive long. The case studies of players like Luke Shaw, his career stalled by repeated fitness issues, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, whom Conte does not believe works hard enough off the ball and has been loaned to Crystal Palace, attest to two managers who demand total, unrelenting commitment.
These are approaches with a finite shelf life. Mourinho's managerial career is defined by short, sharp shocks of success being swiftly followed by an explosive departure. Conte left Juventus after three consecutive titles in the summer of 2014 when fatigue had set into his relationship with the club's owners.
With Chelsea showing signs of burnout from last season's front-running to the title, a dominance that Mourinho himself would have been proud of, familiar cracks and leaks are appearing. At Abramovich-era Chelsea, that usually means one thing, that the manager will eventually depart the scene. As Mourinho, Ancelotti and Champions League-winning Roberto Di Matteo found out, previous success is no sort of protection against the axe falling.
It is a fate that Conte probably does not fear too much, his stock still high back home in Italy where grand projects at both Milan clubs might soon beckon him. Like Mourinho after both his departures from the Bridge, fresh offers will not be long in coming.
For Mourinho, Sunday's match gives the chance to inflict further damage on Conte's regime and prove his own sacking was simply part of the circle of managerial life at Chelsea.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.