Strange but true: Jose Mourinho once fell out with Arsène Wenger over a Christmas card. It was in 2005, at the very height of their antipathy towards one another and for a few days it became an issue between the two men that even those who worked with them despaired of.
Mourinho had sent a card, produced by CLIC Sargent, a children’s cancer charity the club were then supporting, to every one of his fellow 19 Premier League managers but only in Wenger’s did he write an additional note. It was to the effect that his most toxic remark about his opposite number, the “voyeur” allegation, uttered eight years ago tomorrow, had not been made with any sinister undertone other than that he felt Wenger spent too much time commenting on Chelsea.
Wenger failed to reciprocate. Then, when they played each other at Highbury on 18 December, one of the Arsenal staff questioned an opposite number on the Chelsea staff about whether the card was genuine, word got back and the whole episode ended with both men in a renewed huff. Merry bloomin’ Christmas.
Which is why it was not a surprise that after Sunday’s win over Manchester City, someone in the press conference chucked in a question about Mourinho’s relationship with Wenger, whom the Chelsea manager faces tonight for the first time since May 2007. Mourinho started tutting before the question was even finished. “We have no problems,” he said, “no problems at all”.
Then he thought for a moment and considered his chief current complaint, that Chelsea are being afforded only one day’s rest between Sunday and tonight’s Capital One Cup fourth round game while Arsenal had the benefit of the Saturday lunchtime kick-off. “Unless you tell me that he [Wenger] had an influence on this fixture being played on Tuesday?” Mourinho said. “If you tell me that [is the case]! If you tell me that...”
A joke, of course, from a manager who was in a good mood by virtue of Fernando Torres’ last-minute winner. There are shades of Wenger in the lugubrious Manuel Pellegrini to whom Mourinho was also conciliatory having been somewhat indelicate in his goal celebrations. First time around at Chelsea, you could have imagined a figure like Pellegrini being added to Mourinho’s hit-list.
Of course, there is one statistic that Mourinho would have liked to have been reminded of, had he held a press conference to preview tonight’s match: he has never lost to Wenger. They faced one another eight times during Mourinho’s first three seasons and two months in English football, including a Community Shield and League Cup final, and Mourinho won four and drew four.
Previous to Mourinho’s arrival, Wenger’s record against Chelsea in 25 games after he arrived in 1996 was 15 wins, seven draws and three defeats, including the famous Champions League quarter-final second leg at Highbury.
They were different days, when Chelsea were obliged to buy the veteran stars of world football, like Arsenal old boy Emmanuel Petit rather than the A-listers whom Roman Abramovich has signed.
“I wouldn’t bet for one single problem between us,” Mourinho said when asked about Wenger during his club’s pre-season this summer. He described Wenger as “a nice guy” on more than one occasion. He said that they had got to know each other better at Uefa coaching conferences – the ubiquitous resolution chamber for warring managers – and that Wenger has a “big culture”, by which he seemed to mean a wide range of conversation on topics outside the sport.
It is getting to the point now where questions about divisions between the two men, historical or otherwise, feel very passé, very last decade – like George W Bush, avian bird flu or Arsenal winning trophies. “Sometimes we go overboard and that is part of the job,” Wenger said yesterday, talking about his previous relationship with Mourinho, “with the distance after it always settles”.
They have faced each other once before in the League Cup, the Carling Cup final in February 2007 or, as it came to be known in the aftermath, with three red cards and John Terry concussed, the “Snarling Cup final”. Wenger picked a very young side that day, including the 17-year-olds, Theo Walcott and Armand Traoré and only lost the game to a Didier Drogba goal six minutes from time.
As far as team selection goes tonight, there are options open to Wenger, with Liverpool waiting on Saturday. He could stick with the young team that just squeaked past West Bromwich Albion on penalties in the previous round but that feels foolhardy. The obvious choice would be to pick as strong a side as possible, but he said yesterday it would be a “mixture” of younger players and those who have had limited first team opportunities.
Wenger’s second string defence and attack are more than capable, the question comes down to who he selects in midfield. As for Mourinho, there can be no raiding of the club’s best Under-21s, they are all on loan, 25 of them. So he will have to give games to those who did not play against City. Yet it is no hardship picking the likes of Juan Mata, David Luiz, Michael Essien, Cesar Azpilicueta, Demba Ba, Tomas Kalas, Kevin de Bruyne and Mark Schwarzer.
“We are going to give the game that the people [who scheduled] the game on Tuesday want,” Mourinho said. “If they want a big game, we cannot give a big game. If they want the players that were playing [against City], we cannot give them that. If they want us not to win a trophy, that’s a help. If they want a big game between two big teams in London they should put the game on Wednesday.”
That mini-rant was a throwback to the old days when Mourinho perceived slights and injustice in just about every nook and cranny of the English football establishment. None more so than Wenger who, first time around, he seemed to suspect of being engaged in a Football Association conspiracy along with David Dein, then the Arsenal vice-chairman. The manager most likely to have put that idea in his head is now retired.
The notion of Mourinho going through another provocative saga with Arsenal like the signing of Ashley Cole in 2006 seems unthinkable now. So far, he has largely made good on his promises to calm down. But he will not want to lose that unbeaten record against Wenger.