LONDON — Jose Mourinho is a lightning rod, for good or bad. Even when it isn’t his fault, the story usually ends up with the Manchester United manager being front and centre, and he can thank Marco Ianni for that after Saturday’s dramatic and chaotic 2-2 draw against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Marco who? Good question, and one that Mourinho would probably have uttered before this game.
But he knows who Ianni is now after the Italian goaded the former Chelsea manager with an over-exuberant celebration after Ross Barkley’s 96th-minute equaliser.
Ianni’s official title is that of second assistant to Chelsea coach Maurizio Sarri, but he will now be remembered as the guy who poked a stick at Mourinho and led the Portuguese to chase him down the tunnel at the end of this game.
Chaos ensued — and it was already pretty chaotic with Barkley scoring so late — but while the United manager was largely blameless, only reacting to provocation, it is perhaps valid to ask whether Ianni would have celebrated so wildly had the likes of Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola been in the opposition dugout rather than Mourinho.
This is the reality that Mourinho must accept. Because of his own track record and history of antagonising opponents, he now finds himself facing the kind of behaviour that he and his own assistants have been guilty of in the past. Who can forget Mourinho poking Tito Vilanova in the eye, sliding on his knees in celebration at Camp Nou or even the time he sprinted down the Old Trafford touchline to celebrate Porto’s last-minute equaliser at Manchester United?
And after accepting Ianni’s postmatch apology, Mourinho admitted that he could not bear a grudge against the 36-year-old considering his own actions in the past.
“I am not annoyed with anything,” Mourinho said. “What happened with Sarri’s assistant, Sarri was the first one to come to me and say he will resolve it.
“The assistant has already come to me and apologised, I told him to forget it. I have made a lot of mistakes in my career, especially when I was young like him.
“Don’t do what everyone does and say ‘it’s Mourinho who does things.’ I don’t know his name, I don’t need to know. Everything is fine.”
Sarri, the Chelsea manager, admitted that Mourinho was wronged on this occasion, displaying more diplomacy than his predecessor, Antonio Conte, who was never one to concede anything to the Man United boss.
“After the match I spoke with Jose, and immediately I understood we were wrong,” Sarri said. “I spoke immediately with the member of my staff and I told him to speak with Mourinho and say sorry. Now everything is finished.”
What happened next was classic Mourinho, however. With the Chelsea fans taunting their former manager — ‘F— off Mourinho!’ was the chant from the main stand — he responded by displaying three fingers to his tormentors, referencing the three Premier League titles he won as the club’s manager.
“I did not get respect from the Chelsea fans,” he said. “But that is not up to me.”
Whether he enjoys it or not, Mourinho is the guy who is always portrayed as the villain of the piece, but there was so much more to this game than the incident with Ianni and his reaction to the fans who once idolised him.
Two weeks after his United team overturned a 2-0 deficit to beat Newcastle 3-2 at Old Trafford — a result which may have saved his job — his players almost performed a similar trick at Chelsea and Mourinho was central to that with his tactics and motivation.
He was a constant ball of energy on the touchline, driving his players on. Tactically, by restoring Juan Mata to his team, Mourinho gave United a crucial link to the forwards, and the Spaniard’s presence also unlocked Paul Pogba’s ability as a driving force further back — Mata’s presence stopped Pogba from believing he had to do everything.
Having trailed to Antonio Rudiger’s 21st-minute header, when Paul Pogba’s slack marking allowed the German defender to score from a set piece, United produced a stirring second-half performance to come within a whisker of winning at Stamford Bridge for the first time since 2012.
Anthony Martial, a player whose regression under Mourinho has been stark until his recent revival, scored two stunning goals to put United on the brink of victory, and his smiling reaction when substituted in the closing stages hinted at a warming of his relationship with his manager.
Pogba also impressed in this game — minus the aforementioned defensive mistake — as did Luke Shaw, less than 48 hours after confirmation of his new five-year contract.
Romelu Lukaku performed like a world-class centre-forward in the second half, too.
All of the players listed above have had their issues with Mourinho, but they were suddenly delivering against a big team, and while Mourinho still has to win over many of his stars, this performance suggested that it may finally be coming together.
But once again, when the dust settled, the story was all about Mourinho.
Yes, it wasn’t his fault that Ianni celebrated so crazily in front of him, but there was little sense of Mourinho biting his tongue and refusing to take the bait.
He also didn’t need to hit back at the Chelsea fans, but when you throw away three points you so desperately want with almost the last kick of the game, it would be testing the resolve of anyone, never mind someone as emotional as Mourinho.
And there was enough in this game to anger and delight him — a terrible opening goal, when Pogba lost his man, a stirring fightback, a performance which highlighted Martial’s brilliant potential and then the gut-wrenching Barkley equaliser, just as the points seemed to be in the bag.
Then again, just imagine how Mourinho would have reacted had United claimed victory.
Still, it would be good for him, and United, for the story to focus on football once again. That will have to wait for now, though.