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There was a drama called “Rome” on the telly yesterday – the latest swords and sandals epic to hit the schedules, and when screen time was not being given to licentious women and unabashed nudity, there was much rivalry and political intrigue. Indeed, if you can look past the togas and the bloody, offal-drenched animal slaughter, the key values of duplicity and smear campaigning are still very much in evidence today, especially in the world of Premiership football management.
Certainly the tabloids would have you believe that Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger are feuding on a gladiatorial scale – the haughty, chiselled centurion whose arrogance and flair has captivated the masses poring scorn on the wizened old Senator with a chip on his shoulder and a gaping void in his midfield ranks – his champion warrior having, ironically enough, buggered off to Italy.
It’s not the first footballing grudge by a long chalk, but one that has, thankfully, smashed the recent Old Trafford monopoly: Witness Roy Keane and his unbridled hatred for Manchester United fans who have the audacity to munch on shellfish-based snacks during the half-time interval; Teddy Sheringham and Andy Cole and their ongoing tiff over a misplaced pass that happened sometime in the last century; and Alex Ferguson’s refusal to speak to the Match of the Day team ever again (presumably after persistent over-exposure to Garth Crooks).
But it’s hard not to side with the Arsenal man on this one – After all, everybody loves an underdog, and the Chelsea manager’s comments seem more than a little misguided considering the quotes I have read from Wenger have been nothing but complimentary about the Premiership champions. To cast him as a jealous rubberneck is not only unfair but goes completely against type – Wenger is a proud man who prefers to discuss his own charges rather than those of his opponents.
Still, it’s a spicy contretemps, and one that looks destined to run and run. Mourinho, already, has his caricature indelibly etched on the public imagination: The curled lip, the trench coat, the Latin shrug and implausibly large tie knot. It is easy to cast him as the villain of the piece, with his shady, megalomaniac benefactor and brutal self-assurance.
It’s trickier to picture Wenger in the role of tortured hero, but, hey, I’ll have a go.
I can see him as Popeye to Mourinho’s gloating Bluto – rushing to the aid of his stricken Olive Oyl (Ashley Cole, perhaps), who has been seduced by Bluto’s goons led by Peter “Knuckles” Kenyon, and now lies helpless, tied to a railway track, an onrushing locomotive steaming in ready to squish her unless she signs a lucrative £100,000 a week contract. But what’s this? A sailorman in an Arsenal tracksuit, anchor-tatted biceps bulging from recent spinach intake, brandishing a FIFA tapping-up directive and shrugging with Gallic detachment, scoops up his sweetheart and whisks her away from a hideous nightmare of great wealth and the prospect of unlimited silverware, and returns her unharmed to the security of playing left-back in a team of mid-table strugglers for considerably less money.
Actually, thinking about it, Mourinho’s allegation of the Frenchman’s “obsession” smacks more of a detective tirelessly stalking his prey: A Holmes and Moriarty affair, with the deer-stalkered lawman pacing his Highbury office, brow furrowed, teeth clamped down on his calabash pipe, concocting elaborate plans in the forlorn hope of capturing his bete noir – while the ingenuous Doctor Watson (or at the very least, Pat Rice) dutifully takes notes and offers gentle reassurance.
Wenger, the lonely dick always a step behind his quarry certainly sits more comfortably than the idea of the French master tactician as a “voyeur”. Mourinho’s most damning accusation conjures up ghastly images of our hero in a dirty mac thumbing furtively through illegally procured photographs of Frank Lampard, or lurking in a battered Citroen with blacked out windows parked up in the West End, night vision goggles trained on William Gallas as he enjoys a evening out at China White with Claude Makele.
Either way, the two managers have clearly reached an impasse, and, as far as I can see, the situation will not be resolved until some form of epic confrontation occurs. Surely I am not alone in hoping that the conclusion will befit the hype. Personally I would favour the whole colosseum bit with spears, shields, wild animals and a duel to the death, but I’d settle for handbags at fifty paces in the pitch-side technical area at Stamford Bridge presided over by Uriah Rennie, with Steve Clarke pulling his temperamental Portuguese gaffer away saying: “Leave it, Maestro, he’s not worth it.”