Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho feud adds an edge to FA Cup final
The losers at Wembley will end the season without a trophy.
Even those who predicted the demise of the FA Cup a few years ago will be relishing a Wembley final between Chelsea and Manchester United.
The foes are familiar. There is plenty of angst. And it is personal.
Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho have engaged in a lengthy public spat of put-downs and insults which has paused, for now.
Do not let a handshake at Old Trafford at the end of February fool you. There is plenty of animosity between the Portuguese and his permanent successor as Chelsea head coach.
It is personal when it comes to the final, too. These are coaches who rarely experience trophyless seasons. For the victor, this will be a cup of solace.
Conte and Chelsea won the 2016-17 Premier League title, but were denied the double, beaten to the 2017 FA Cup by Arsenal. The Blues will not want a repeat at Wembley.
Mourinho – who despite being Chelsea’s most successful manager after two spells only lifted the FA Cup once in 2007 – won the League Cup and Europa League in his first season with United. He will want to complete his second with more silverware.
It is widely expected to be Conte’s last hurrah at Chelsea, who fumbled to the finish of the league campaign. The Italian is anticipated to be leaving the Blues at the end of the season.
The ‘Mourinho season’ Conte warned of – referring to the 2015-16 campaign when Chelsea imploded, the Portuguese was sacked and the Blues recovered to place 10th – did not materialise.
But Chelsea did finish fifth, missing out on Champions League qualification. Mourinho’s United were second.
Mourinho would dearly love to win, especially at Conte’s expense.
Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic, two former Blues, would enjoy victory as well. Juan Mata might, too, if selected by Mourinho.
United are the most recent of these sides, in 2016, to win the FA Cup, when Louis van Gaal bowed out with the trophy. Within a week Mourinho had been appointed.
The last three times Chelsea beat Leicester en route to the FA Cup final – in 1997, 2000 and 2012 – they went on to lift the trophy.
A quarter-final win over the Foxes failed to convince, nor did a semi-final defeat of Southampton. United negotiated a tougher semi-final, defeating Spurs, but also had mixed results at the end of their league campaign.
There will also be a poignancy about the occasion. Former United boss Sir Alex Ferguson will be on the minds of many after his recent brain operation.
And Ray Wilkins will too. The former England midfielder, who wore the number eight shirt for both clubs, died earlier this year.
He is expected to be remembered in the eighth minute of the match.
That will be the one occasion when all in Wembley are on the same side.
Before and after that moment, expect a full-blooded final where the will to win may overcome the desire to avoid defeat. It will be compelling viewing.