Liam TwomeyChelsea Correspondent
LONDON -- Antonio Conte has warned his Premier League managerial rivals that he is ready for a "fight" if they maintain their public criticism of him and his Chelsea players.
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho made the latest in a series of thinly-veiled barbs towards Conte this week, when he referred to coaches who act like "a clown on the touchline," while Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger doubled down on his accusation that Eden Hazard dived to win a penalty in Wednesday's 2-2 draw with Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium.
A visibly annoyed Conte responded in his Friday news conference by suggesting that Mourinho has a memory problem when it comes to his own past actions on the pitch, and claiming that Wenger should show more respect for referees and other clubs.
And the Italian went on to say that he is prepared to meet fire with fire if he feels he or his players are being unfairly singled out.
"In my one year and a half [in England] I never talked about other coaches. If I spoke about other coaches, it was only to make compliments. Otherwise I stay silent but I repeat: In this situation, you must have respect and I think that I do this, but at the same time I am starting to be a bit annoyed because once, twice [it has happened].
"The people who know me very well in Italy [know my personality] ... for this reason you must pay great attention when you speak because if you want to go to fight with me I am ready. I have zero problems. I am improving a bit my English because this is the real problem for me, otherwise we can go to fight. I'm ready to fight for me, my players, the club, with everyone. I have no problem."
Conte also renewed his attack on Mourinho with a barely-disguised criticism of his own, referring to "other persons" who regularly turn their weekly news conferences into a spectacle.
Asked if other managers' comments annoy him, Conte replied: "I must be honest -- I don't read [any of it]. The only opportunity to know about these situations is during the news conference. I am not prepared like other persons to make a cinema, because there are other persons who prepare to have a cinema in the news conference, before the game and during the game. I am not this type of person.
"At the same time, when I start to listen with regularity to this situation it is right to answer, because it is funny and I laugh a lot."
Mourinho wasted no time in hitting back at Conte's criticism, however, reminding the Chelsea manager on Friday night he was previously accused in a match-fixing scandal for which the Italian was later acquitted.
"I don't need Chelsea manager to say I made mistakes in past and will in future," Mourinho said. "What I will say is I will never be banned for match fixing."
When it was put to him that Mourinho's penchant for outspoken quotes might be a form of deflection, Conte replied: "I don't know. Now it is very difficult to do only cinema [in football]. Maybe in the past with the cinema it was enough. Now you have to show football knowledge and the cinema is not enough for the coach."
Conte has been vocal in recent weeks about improving the depth of his squad in January, and Chelsea made their first signing on Friday, moving swiftly to acquire Ross Barkley for £15 million from Everton.
Barkley is a signing driven primarily by Chelsea rather than Conte, but the Italian still spoke highly of the 24-year-old's ability and potential.
"We are talking about a player with great potential," the Italian said. "He is a complete player but at the same time he is very young and he has just started his career."
Asked what he meant by "complete," Conte added: "Complete because he has it all. He has stamina, he is strong physically, he has good technique. He is fast, and has stamina. He is a modern footballer."
I don’t find elite football as interesting to watch any more, especially in England. You hear about people saying English football’s the best football there is around. I think Spain’s by far the best league. Germany has better teams. In Italy probably the strength in depth isn’t great. They talk about Italy being a bad league but I don’t think English people look at it. They say it’s boring. No chance. The Juventus team would beat any team in this league. They came up to Manchester City and beat them easy. But we have this interpretation of the Italian league that it’s rubbish. They only try to defend. No chance.
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The Spanish league’s the best by far if you’re judging on the European competitions. In the quarter-finals of the Champions League and the Europa League in 2015–16, they had six of the 16 teams. Nearly half of them. The Premier League had just two.
There needs to be a real step up in quality in England. Other than Sergio Agüero, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, we don’t have the best players. All the best players are in other countries.
The best players are in Spain or at Bayern Munich and Juventus. We’re linked with big players – Gareth Bale is a top player – but we don’t get them now. Not any more. You never see a Lionel Messi coming over here, you never see a Neymar in the Premier League.
I probably do enjoy watching Salford more. I don’t know if it’s as much that I don’t like the hassle of going to the game, getting in, sitting in traffic. Going to Salford, I park up behind the goal and get out of my car. But I genuinely get more enjoyment from watching even my son’s team, Royter Town. It’s like a men’s team, but he’s 16. He started playing a few games for them last season. I went to watch him once, it was 5-4. It’s just entertainment.
There’s some good players, really good players, but it’s not always the best for quality. In the Premier League in the last two years, have I really seen a game of high quality? A game that I’ve thought: “Wow!” It’s difficult to think of any.
Then I think of games abroad that I’ve watched: Real Madrid–Barcelona, Bayern Munich–Borussia Dortmund, proper games of football. I can’t imagine Real Madrid players, Barcelona players, watching our games and being as excited as we are to watch a Real Madrid–Barcelona game or a Bayern–Dortmund game or Juventus–Roma, something like that. Now 10 years ago, in those days, other than Real Madrid … I don’t think Bayern Munich were particularly special. Juventus were good, don’t get me wrong, but I think English teams were probably on a par with them.
It’s all about money and sponsorship in England these days rather than football, rather than entertainment. And I don’t think that’s just from the top teams either. I think it goes right down through the league. I know there is pressure on managers, but styles of play become so negative because managers are frightened of losing their jobs. If you lose three or four games on the trot obviously you’re under big pressure and you’re sacked and that makes them think: “Right, do we need results or do we need to find a way of playing to entertain people?” It’s rubbish. It spoils English football.
I’d probably be sacked after five games if I was a manager, wouldn’t I? I really don’t know if I’ll ever manage. I’ve done my Uefa B licence. I haven’t done the A licence.
I will get it done. But I’m just wondering, is it worth it? I haven’t had any major offers. I had one offer from Oldham a couple of years ago. But you have to start somewhere; if you get your coaching badge you start doing a youth team, doing something first, and if you like it then you take it from there, I suppose. I haven’t done it enough to like it or not like it really. I think if I really got into it, I could enjoy it. But I wouldn’t be one who’d be worried about losing his job for not playing the right way. I suppose you never know, though. But if you’re doing it the way that you think it should be, if people are paying to watch, I’d want to entertain.
The money’s the most important thing these days about football because owners, the majority of them, are just interested in making money for their football club. They don’t care what they see on a Saturday afternoon on the pitch. They’re purely businessmen, whereas at Barcelona you have a balance between business and football.
Obviously they have to make money for the club’s sake, but it’s a club that is a cooperative owned by the fans, not by one businessman or a group of individuals. So they want to make it pay, but making as much money as they can isn’t the primary objective. It’s entertainment. Winning the Champions League, winning the best prizes. That’s why they have the best players. And why clubs like that are the best teams.
Class of 92: Out of our League – Our Journey Back to the Heart of the Game. By Nicky Butt, Phil Neville, Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. Published by BBC Books on 8 Sept, hardback £20