Jose Mourinho's famed "mind games" have been almost exclusively aimed at Manchester City and Manuel Pellegrini this season, and in recent days his barbs have been coming thick and fast. Every time the Chelsea boss opens his mouth, he seems to have the same intention: to derail City's title challenge and disrupt Pellegrini as much as possible.
Their rivalry goes back to when Mourinho succeeded Pellegrini as Real Madrid boss. Mourinho was quoted in ESPN as saying: "If Madrid were to fire me, I wouldn't go to Malaga. I'd go to a top-level team in Italy or England." It was an unnecessary jibe that sparked a now long-running feud between the pair.
Since they reconvened in England after their respective appointments this summer, Mourinho has upped the ante, often trying to convince people—largely unsuccessfully—that Chelsea shouldn't be considered title contenders and that all the pressure to win the league is on City.
After their win at the Etihad last week, he told reporters Chelsea were the "little horse" in the title race, and then on BBC's Match of the Day described City as being "a Jaguar."
He's also attacked their spending and attempted to put pressure on the FA on the day of Yaya Toure's recent hearing, which, incidentally, ended with the Ivorian escaping a three-match ban for an incident at Carrow Road.
It's clear Mourinho sees City as his biggest rivals. Not only are they Chelsea's main challengers in the title race, they also stand in the way their of progression in the FA Cup, with the two sides meeting at the Etihad on Saturday for the standout fifth-round tie.
So far, Pellegrini has largely resisted the temptation to hit back at Mourinho's taunts, a tactic which has seen him win favour with many observers. He did, however, have one blip at a recent Carrington press conference. It came in the aftermath of City's 1-0 defeat to the West London side, making his comments seem somewhat ill-judged and reactionary.
Maybe it is a small horse if the manager thinks like that. It can be a little horse, but very rich.
This is the team that has spent most money in the last 10 years, is the team that spent most money this year and the team that spent the most money in the transfer window. So, little - but rich.
Pellegrini, for the first time, appeared flustered. It made little sense to hit back after keeping a dignified silence for so long.
He appears to have recognised it was a mistake, though, saying this week:
He [Mourinho] started talking about referees and Financial Fair Play, I don't think it is the way to go about things. I will not continue every week talking about things that for me are not important.
These are not mind games because I don't think managers can be affected by those kind of things, but I will not answer any more on Mourinho.
Pellegrini knows it's in his own—and his club's—best interest to avoid being drawn into a verbal scrap with Mourinho. It's exactly what he wants; he thrives on drama and causing discontent.
It's interesting that when City were searching for a manager this summer, the name Jose Mourinho didn't enter the equation as a possible appointment, largely because his conduct is not to the liking of Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano, the club's director of football and chief executive, respectively.
Mourinho's brash outspokenness is not compatible with their way of working, and they were always more likely to appoint a man like Pellegrini, who sees to make his mission to avoid making headlines.
Despite still being in four competitions, City have largely gone under the radar this season, thanks to their manager's ability to avoid controversy. His straight—and some would say boring—approach to press conferences has worked brilliantly, much to the frustration of Fleet Street reporters who prefer vocal managers that provide them with material for their articles.
Pellegrini must stick to his approach and not be dragged down by his Chelsea counterpart. It might just make the difference come the end of the season.
Manchester City play Chelsea in the FA Cup on Saturday at 5:15 p.m. GMT.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise stated.
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