Nobody manages a football club more than 200 times without establishing a lasting intimacy, and the clutch of Chelsea supporters who gather in the north east corner of the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium this afternoon will feel poignantly they know their opponent better than they do their own team.
That’s partly because Chelsea, a side speckled with novices, on the pitch and in the dugout, are unknowably inconsistent. But it’s mainly because Jose Mourinho, perhaps the most influential figure in Chelsea’s modern history, will be centre stage.
Mourinho, a month into his job at Spurs, sometimes talks of Chelsea, where he spent over five seasons all told, with a forked tongue. Sometimes he need not speak at all to communicate loud and clear with his former constituents. He has, since his last adventure there ended in 2015, developed a set of hand signals to rile them, to reference the memories. There's the three-fingered gesture. He used it when he was manager of Manchester United, on a day Chelsea supporters, in his view, showed him a lack of respect. The three fingers, raised into the air, are for the three Premier League titles he delivered, across two spells, as Chelsea's manager. The first of them came after a gap on the club's honours board of 50 years.
The last Mou-Blues reunion? It featured a touchline scrap, where but for the intervention of bystanders, punches would have been thrown. An irate Mourinho launched himself at the then assistant Chelsea coach Marco Ianni after the Italian, a deputy to Maurizio Sarri, celebrated a late equaliser directly and deliberately in front of Mourinho’s seat in the United dugout at Stamford Bridge 14 months ago. The Portuguese had lost his cool. Nowhere do they know how to push Mourinho’s buttons better than at Chelsea.
He has faced his old club nine times in his career, and if he does so another 19 times, it will never become simply routine. Ten seasons ago, when Mourinho was coaching Internazionale, the return of the ex seemed almost gentle, and dignified. But his legacy at Chelsea was peerless then - only he, ahead of a parade of managers who followed him, had delivered Premier League titles to Stamford Bridge at that stage. His Inter’s victories in both legs of a Champions League quarter-final confirmed the impression that "The Special One" remained very special.
Once Mourinho was wearing a United blazer and tie, fixtures against Chelsea became more heated. By then he had lost his blue halo. Although Mourinho’s second spell at the Bridge delivered the 2014/15 Premier League, the collapse in the subsequent season had been ugly and bad-tempered. Chelsea lived through the worst of Mourinho, petulant and destructive, as well as his best.
But Mourinho as a Spur marks a new frontier. He came to appreciate quickly when he landed with such spectacular effect in English football in 2004 that, of all the London derbies, Chelsea-Spurs has a venom, from a Chelsea perspective, like no other. “I could never manage Tottenham,” he said four years ago. “I love Chelsea fans too much.”
Last month, he broke that undertaking. This afternoon, he could break Chelsea's hold on a top four position in the table. His old club can be forgiven for developing a neurosis about Mourinho's latest return to London. Since he was appointed as the sacked Mauricio Pochettino's successor at Tottenham, Chelsea have lost four of their five league fixtures. Spurs, who were 14th in the table when Mourinho arrived, trailing Chelsea by 12 points, have won four out of five under the new man. A win Sunday would have them leapfrog Frank Lampard's young team into fourth spot, the target set Mourinho by Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy.
It is a spiky scenario for a contest that will pitch Lampard, the managerial newcomer, against the boss from whom he learnt so much. Lampard played over 200 of his Chelsea games under Mourinho’s orders. He scored 70 of his 211 Chelsea goals while Mourinho was encouraging him to become the dynamic midfield all-rounder who would set club records. “He was a big influence on my career,” acknowledged Lampard.
“I love the guy,” said Mourinho of Lampard. “I will always be grateful to him for what he gave me as a player. Nothing is going to change that.
“Before the game, it’s great to see people you consider friends. Afterwards, the same feeling. But during the game, not one inch of doubt. I am 100 per cent Tottenham, no space at all for my previous clubs. No, it’s not difficult at all from an emotional point of view. It’s easy.”