Conte on Chelsea to surprise

IT helps that they don't like each other. The Special One and the Unappreciated One's mutual hostility should ensure an appropriately feisty finale to England's domestic season at tomorrow's FA Cup final.

For this famous old trophy needs all the assistance it can get these days. Shoved to an after midnight kickoff (in Malaysia) and with not even a place in Europe for winning it, it's a well-documented shadow of its former self.

This is just one reason no one is trying to hype this into a blockbuster occasion despite the pedigree of the heavyweight contestants. Indeed, both Manchester United and Chelsea are a bit like the Cup – in need of something more than a tin of Brasso to restore their lost lustre.

A curious element to this clash is that although both managers have endured disappointing seasons, one may want to win the thing (and boast about it) more than the other.

Jose Mourinho sees it as a golden opportunity to snare yet another trophy – a fourth in two years by his count, but just a third by anyone else's. Yep, he includes the Community Shield…

Once a serial collector of high-class silverware, he is becoming more and more like a dodgy antique dealer no longer able to get hold of the genuine stuff. But that hasn't stopped him from pretending otherwise or hitting below the belt.

Last week he again alluded to Antonio Conte being accused of match-fixing even though the Italian was completely exonerated. It suggests their rift has not been repaired.

Even after conceding the Premier League crown to Manchester City, he oozed defiance: "I know how to win titles, in case some of the new guys don't know, I won eight championships in four different countries and three in this country. I know why you win and I know why you don't win."

This after finishing the length of the Manchester Ship Canal behind City who broke records for fun! It's not as if he has to win the Cup to save his job, but he will know that only a massive improvement in both the Premier League and Champions League can extend it beyond next season.

For Conte, you feel the gig is up anyway and has been for a while. We may never know who has really been to blame and if we give the manager the benefit of the doubt over incoming transfers, he and he alone sent the fateful text to Diego Costa.

To swap that most awkward of customers, that indomitable powerhouse for the woeful weakling that is Alvaro Morata was probably the single biggest factor in their demise – Chelsea swapped a battering ram for a peashooter.

But the Italian also has to front up for tactics, team selections and substitutions, the last of which are often too little too late. His side for the Huddersfield match is being seen in some quarters as his suicide note; the performance at Newcastle the deed itself. Yet you wonder whether they were necessary.

The turnaround from the all-conquering title-winning first season is still nowhere near as bad as "the Mourinho season" yet still inexplicable with the quality at his disposal.

But given his transformation from manically combative to almost begging for the sack (and the millions in compensation) you feel his fate was sealed early doors.

Still, there have been moments when Chelsea have looked very good indeed: at Atletico and against Barcelona at home they were outstanding and in the league too there were spells when Eden Hazard and Willian looked unstoppable.

All of this suggests that Conte, while losing the boardroom, has not lost the dressing room. No manager who presided over such a brilliant first season in a new league and new country as Conte did can become a mug overnight.

And with the board culpable for much of what went on, he is unlikely to find that his standing has been seriously damaged in the eyes of his many suitors abroad. Indeed, most will shrug and repeat what Hazard said this week, when asked to explain their ups and downs: "This is Chelsea. You never know what you're going to get."

Indeed, you wouldn't put it past them to produce a farewell performance – if that is what it is to be for the manager – worthy of last season when perhaps least expected. They defied most pundits in the 2017 final by failing to show up against Arsenal and it would be entirely in character - and their DNA - to do the opposite this time.

In Olivier Giroud they have found a target man worthy of the name and one that can trouble United's central defenders. Noises coming out of the Bridge this week suggest that the senior players are up for it and Chelsea like nothing better than being cussed and contrary.

United are favourites mainly because of Mourinho's record in finals and they also have a few players with something to prove. So there should be no lack of incentive even if one manager just wants to end the season by boosting a flagging reputation and the other just wants the money.

(Bold & Italics) Bob's latest book, Living the Dream, is available at all leading book stores. Bob will be signing copies at D'Legends, 24, Jalan Datuk Sulaiman, TTDI tomorrow night at the big in-house preview before the FA Cup final.