By Liam Twomey at Cobham
Smiling knowingly as he walked into the conference room at Cobham, the day before he takes on former protege - and, by all accounts, former friend - Andre Villas-Boas for the first time at White Hart Lane, Jose Mourinho knew exactly what to expect.
In truth, he always does. This, as much as any football stadium his teams have competed in, is his arena. Over the years he has become the master, el puto amo, of saying as much as he wants to the media, even when he insists that he doesn't really want to say anything at all.
It is a fact, not a secret, that Villas-Boas and Mourinho have had no time for each other since the one-time opposition scout decided to spread his own managerial wings at club level with Academica de Coimbra. The reasons for the depth of ill-feeling, however, largely remained hidden from public view until the Tottenham manager addressed it in an interview with L'Equipe on Thursday.
"I was never his No.2," he insisted. "I was part of his staff, but I was never his assistant. That's one of the reasons we went our separate ways. I thought I could give him a lot more but he didn't feel the need to have someone next to him.
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After Villas-Boas expanded on his revelations during his pre-match press conference on Thursday, many expected Mourinho to exercise his right of reply the following day. He didn't – at least not in the kind of obvious way for which editors up and down the land were hoping.
"I don't describe [our relationship] because I don't discuss relationships with the media," he said coolly. "I don't care what he says and I'm not going to comment. I'm not interested."
Delivered in a calm, considered tone but a straight bat nonetheless. More questions inevitably followed. Was he looking forward to taking on his former understudy? "No," was the reply, followed by a pointed pause before he embarked on a standard matches-against-Tottenham-are-always-big-occasions answer.
What influence have you had on Villas-Boas's career and methods? "I have no idea. You have to ask him, it's not my problem. I had so many assistants and was always an open book to all of them. I'm trying to do the same with Chris Jones, Steve Holland and the coaches in the academy. After that if they want to read the book, it's not my problem."
While not overtly giving much away, the words carried a sense of curtness only usually reserved for subjects that irk Mourinho. There were no devastating put-downs or witty ripostes but the message delivered was just as emphatic: I don't care what he's said or done. I've had many assistants. He's nothing special. Ask me about something – or someone – that matters.
There were also, as there always is with Mourinho, a few thinly hidden barbs. He claimed Tottenham did worse under Villas-Boas's guidance last season than the two previous campaigns under Harry Redknapp, conveniently choosing to judge them on their final league position rather than the record points tally they amassed in an admittedly failed tilt at the top four.
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This was classic Mourinho, invoking his own phenomenal managerial CV to pay tribute to Louis van Gaal while subtly rebuking Villas-Boas by comparison, for going public with his side of the story on their split and, in doing so, changing the focus of the game from the teams to the managers.
It is a part of Mourinho's approach which appears to have changed since his return to England. Prior to Chelsea's Super Cup showdown with Bayern Munich in Prague, he was similarly unwilling to stoke his personal rivalry with Pep Guardiola. Perhaps he has realised the distraction does not benefit his teams, or perhaps he is just biding his time and waiting for the perfect moment.
As it was, the mask of indifference towards Villas-Boas slipped with the last question, when an unfortunate journalist had the temerity to ask whether the spirit of Sir Bobby Robson would be present at White Hart Lane, given his huge influence on both coaches.
"Why?" he replied and repeated, feigning total ignorance of his countryman's debt to the man who sent him to Scotland to study for his coaching badges and gave him his first job at Porto. That Villas-Boas's elevation of Robson as his key influence rankles so much with Mourinho suggests that, despite his public pronouncements, he privately feels Villas-Boas has never shown him due gratitude.
Asked whether the pair will share a bottle of Portuguese wine after Saturday's match, Mourinho showed no emotion. "When people invite me I always go," he replied. "I never refuse."
The abiding sense is that no offer will be forthcoming.
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