Jose Mourinho has spoken of the “position of privilege” enjoyed by Antonio Conte during his first season at Chelsea as the Manchester United manager prepares to face his table-topping former club in the FA Cup quarterfinals.
Last season went disastrously for the west Londoners, with the reigning champions’ abysmal Premier League title defence costing Mourinho, the most successful manager in the club’s history, his job at Stamford Bridge for the second time.
Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo cited “palpable discord with the players” — many of whom have found their mojo again under summer appointment Conte.
The former Juventus and Italy manager’s arrival has inspired the Blues to a fine campaign that sees them 10 points clear at the summit, although Mourinho has again highlighted how failing to qualify for Europe has aided their charge.
Last week, United made a 3,750-mile round trip to face Russian side Rostov in the Europa League — hardly the ideal preparation for Monday’s FA Cup showdown.
“The most difficult thing to have is time to work, and they have time to work,” Mourinho said when asked how hard it is to win the league in your first season.
“I know that he said a couple of days ago or a couple of weeks ago that it’s not his fault that they are not in the European competitions.
“It’s my fault and the players’ fault, but the reality is that he got in his hands a situation where they have time to work, time to rest, time to relax, time to disconnect, time to travel, time to have holidays, time to go to America and enjoy America for a couple of days.
“They have time for all of these things, so they are in a position of privilege — the same privilege that Liverpool had a couple of years ago and they almost won the Premier League — but I don’t want to say that they don’t deserve credit for it.
“They choose a certain style of play that I think is very adapted to the qualities of these players.
“They defend a lot and well, and they counter-attack and kill opponents on the counter-attack similar to my Chelsea.
“But the difference is they play with five at the back and I played four at the back, but the same criteria: a very strong team to defend and a team that kills on the counter-attack, and they are doing very, very well and that is why they are going to be champions easily.”
Chelsea underlined their title credentials by condemning United to a 4-0 defeat as Mourinho made a humiliating Stamford Bridge return in October.
The two-time Chelsea boss made his anger at Conte’s touchline histrionics known at the end of a match that saw some Blues fans goad their former manager with chants of “you’re not special anymore.”
Mourinho has the chance to exact revenge in Monday’s mouth-watering FA Cup quarterfinal, but insists beating his former club does not provide any added motivation.
“I am not asking for any credit, I am not asking for that,” he said of his spells at Chelsea. “I am focused on Man United and I know the work I did there, I know what I did but I am the kind of guy that I move and have no regrets and I am not looking for bad feelings at all.
“I have some friends there, who before the game great, after the game great, during the game it’s just another game for me.
“Am I sadder to lose against Chelsea than against another team? No. Am I happier to win against Chelsea than another team? No.
“So for me it’s just a game that comes in the wrong moment for us, because the Europa League is a competition that can give us a Champions League spot.
“The FA Cup isn’t so the Europa League is more important than the FA Cup for us.”
Adding another trophy to this season’s Community Shield and EFL Cup triumphs would be an impressive accomplishment in a season that has seen Mourinho try to shape United in his image, while coping with a demanding fixture schedule.
A league-high 10 draws sticks in the craw but the Red Devils have gone unbeaten in the league since the loss at Chelsea — something Monday’s opponents took great enjoyment in pointing out has “lifted them all the way from sixth to sixth.”
Mourinho is seeing progress, though, and there is palpable excitement about what lies around the corner for the FA Cup holders.
“I know we have to improve,” he added. “I know that we need to improve the squad for next season but this season we have a trophy in the box and we are going to fight for every match. I enjoy the boys.”
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