Conte, not Guardiola, winning hearts and minds
Pep plays pretty but it's easier to love Conte's brutal passion
Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte are united by an unusual quirk of the new Beauty and the Beast movie.
In the live action version, Gaston doesn't quite come across as a straightforward cartoon villain, but as an exuberant, confident individual utterly convinced of his own supremacy.
In comparison, the Beast comes across as a bit of a whiny, sulky brat.
As a result, a number of cinema-goers wanted Belle to end up with Gaston, just as many neutrals want Conte to end up with the title.
Manchester City and Chelsea meet tomorrow morning (Singapore time) and there's no hiding from the fascinating role reversal of their respective managers.
Guardiola, cultivated by Catalans and finessed at Bayern Munich, was expected to win over English football's ruffians with his unadulterated beauty.
It hasn't quite happened, not yet anyway.
Conte, on the other hand, was the calculating Italian brute raised in a catenaccio pen and fed a bland diet of safe, cautious football. He was going to make the Blues hard to beat and even harder to love.
That certainly hasn't happened.
Despite the mumbling, monotone of a robotic foreign language student, Conte has captivated like no EPL newcomer since Jose Mourinho in 2004.
He celebrates Chelsea goals by swinging from the dugout.
It's not so much Planet Football as it is Planet of the Apes.
Chelsea deserve where they are. It is another game, nine left, we have to take points as much as possible and, after that, we will see.Man City manager pep Guardiola
He berates staff members on the touchline for not carrying out instructions quickly enough. He puts down unsettled players like a pest controller taking out cockroaches.
And those mass celebrations are something else, jumping into the crowd for a communal hug with dozens of tattooed, pot-bellied men who cannot quite believe they are being allowed to share the moment with the manager who made it possible.
In other words, Conte still remembers that football is a game; an infuriating, greedy and often cynical game, but a game nonetheless.
Just consider this season's complexion without Conte's Chelsea.
Apart from Tottenham and little bits of Liverpool, it's a rather patchy trudge of dropped points, terrible defending, daft inconsistency and David Moyes threatening to slap a female reporter.
Conte has been a refreshing antidote to the anti-climax, particularly the anti-climax at Man City.
Guardiola will continue to say otherwise, but he expected to win the league in his first season.
He inherited the most expensive side in English football and was handed a couple of hundred million in pocket money, but it hasn't panned out.
There are notable successes. Raheem Sterling is slowly turning all that potential into pedigree and Leroy Sane already looks like an astute purchase.
But the goalkeeping fiasco, the early Champions League exit and the reliance on the old guard were not part of the plan.
Guardiola didn't fancy Joe Hart, Yaya Toure or even Sergio Aguero at the start of the season.
Against Arsenal, Aguero scored, Toure was called on at half-time (and should feature against Chelsea) and Hart's departure has clearly cost City points.
It's been a mixed bag of six sublime attackers and a pot-luck defence and the inconsistency has tested Guardiola's patience.
He arrived with the air of a football imperialist, carrying his coaching bible and ready to civilise the natives.
But Conte has taken to the EPL like a duck to water, embracing its frenetic, wild-eyed culture.
While he hugged it out with the fans, Guardiola inadvertently patronised them with talk of second balls and rudimentary tackling, as if they were culturally unsuited to the game's finer aspects.
And Conte has usurped Mourinho as every neutral's favourite foreign manager, which clearly bothers the Manchester United manager.
Watching Conte laugh off Mourinho's feeble mind games was like Jabba the Hutt dismissing Luke Skywalker's Jedi mind tricks.
Nothing works with Conte. His brutish passion appears to conquer all. The beastly approach even produces the most beautiful football, making the most of Eden Hazard's artistry.
Only a City victory at Stamford Bridge realistically stands between the Chelsea manager and the title now.
Even if Guardiola wins this particular battle, Conte has already won the war for hearts and minds.
BY THE NUMBERS
Red cards in the last five league fixtures between the two clubs, including the fixture at the Etihad Stadium earlier this season, when Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero were both shown red in stoppage time.
- Arsenal v West Ham
- Hull City v Middlesbrough
- Southampton v Crystal Palace
- Swansea v Tottenham
- Liverpool v Bournemouth