Jose Mourinho has been harangued by the fans that once adored him and even labelled ‘Judas’, but the Manchester United manager insists facing former club Chelsea brings no extra emotion.
Antonio Conte’s league leaders arrive at Old Trafford on Sunday for what promises to be a fascinating clash, putting the most successful manager in Chelsea’s history in the spotlight once more.
Mourinho, sacked by the London club in December 2015, was humiliated on his first return to Stamford Bridge in October and took umbrage with Conte’s touchline histrionics as the Blues romped to a 4-0 win.
The west Londoners’ fan base was the subject of the Portuguese’s ire when the sides met in the FA Cup last month, having been goaded by a section of supporters and called ‘Judas’.
Mourinho returned fire after the 1-0 loss by pointing out that “Judas is number one” in Chelsea’s record books, although he insists Sunday’s encounter is like any other match.
“You say that word ’emotion’,” the United boss said when asked how his emotions differ after two high-octane meetings in the capital.
“For me, it is just a game. One more game. No difference for me.”
Asked if there was nothing special about the game, Mourinho: “No, not at all.”
Whatever Mourinho says publicly, victory would surely be sweet against a side that have gone from faltering under his tutelage to become runaway leaders.
United, meanwhile, have gone on a 21-match unbeaten Premier League run since October’s Stamford Bridge humbling, but a failure to take three points from games they have dominated leaves them fifth.
That lack of cutting edge reared its head again on Thursday as Anderlecht snatched a late 1-1 draw in the first leg of their Europa League quarter-final.
Chelsea have had no such problems killing off teams, nor has European football been a factor in Conte’s first season in English football – a freshness Mourinho knows has been beneficial for his former club.
“First of all, some guys are fresh, some guys are tired,” the United boss said when asked how the sides compare.
“That’s very important in football. But for some reason they are top of the league, it’s not just because they are fresh.
“It’s also because they have individual quality and they have collective quality.
“They have a certain style of play. They stick to it, they do it very well.
“Not every team defends with 11 players and they defend with 11 players. Not every team is so objective in their counter-attacks.
“They are very objective in the counter-attack and they have individual players out of the context of the game that can also resolve the problems, so they are a very strong team.”
United will have to be at their best to overcome the Blues on Sunday, when Ashley Young and Wayne Rooney will be hoping to return to the squad having resumed training this week.
David de Gea looks set to return in goal but there remain several long-term absentees, with Mourinho saying former Chelsea favourite Juan Mata will be out until the “end of May”.
The United boss is expecting to be without centre-backs Chris Smalling and Phil Jones until “mid-May”, so Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo are going to be pushed to the limits over the coming weeks.
“There is nothing I can do, they have to go until the limits,” Mourinho added. “There is no other chance.
“We don’t have other central defenders, they have to go. There is no other chance.
“If we arrive into a situation in the Premier League – I hope not – where mathematically the top four is not possible, then the easy decision is to rest them and go with them in the Europa League if we’re still in the competition.
“But at this moment we are in a position where we have two matches in hand.
“If we win both matches, we are in the top four. We have to fight for every game.”