José Mourinho's appreciation of Arsène Wenger taking charge of his 1,000th match with Arsenal extended to commending Chelsea's rivals for sticking by their manager through difficult times, of which, he claimed, there had been "quite a lot".
Wenger takes his side to Stamford Bridge on Saturday lunchtime to mark his considerable achievement, hoping to secure a first win against Mourinho at the 11th attempt, and to maintain his club's title challenge in the process. He and Mourinho have endured a fractious relationship in English football, with any semblance of a truce shattered last month when the Portuguese reacted to what he perceived as criticisms from the Frenchman to brand him a "specialist in failure".
Mourinho will seek out his opposite number as normal before kick-off and extend his hand, though there will be no pomp and circumstance from Chelsea to reflect Wenger's longevity. "The 'tribute' is to say that I believe that any one of us, we would love to have the same privilege with our clubs," Mourinho said. "I admire him and I admire Arsenal, because it's not possible to have 1,000 matches unless the club is also a fantastic club in the way they support the manager, especially in the bad moments and especially when the bad moments were quite a lot. So I admire him and the club.
"Nothing annoys me [about him]. There are many ways of paying tribute. For me to pay tribute is to say he's in a position where many people would like to be. For me, that's the best tribute. Without this feeling of envy. This is not the point. I love my career and the experiences I've had, but he's in a position where everyone likes to be. It's a big compliment."
The pair appeared to have patched up their relationship – so strained during Mourinho's initial three-season spell at Chelsea – upon the Portuguese's return to England last summer, though the resumption of their sides' rivalries as title contenders have strained it once again. "We are not 'friends', though I don't know your concept of 'friends'," said Mourinho, who will be without the suspended Ramires and Willian in the derby. "I don't know if somebody you see three times in a year, and then when you see them it is for five minutes or even less, can be considered a friend.
To be a friend with a football manager, a 'friend' friend, it has to be with people with whom you share something. With an assistant manager of mine, or if I was their assistant. Louis van Gaal [with whom Mourinho worked at Barcelona] is my friend because I worked for him for so long. Other managers you know them, you shake hands, two minutes … My enemy? No one. Not a single one."
Mourinho did acknowledge Arsenal's improved challenge this season, in which Wenger's team are still firmly in the title race and ensconced in the top four, with an FA Cup semi-final to come, even if he did suggest they had adopted qualities reminiscent of the Portuguese's Chelsea to muster their pursuit. "They are different, for better," he said. "They are different in their philosophy because one thing is to keep their philosophy of nice football, their philosophy of keeping the ball and controlling the game through possession. But they are not any more the attacking team they were before.
"They are a very good defensive team. They defend well and quite a lot. They were happy to control the game against Tottenham with the lines very far back and very low. This is not the Arsenal of last year, two years ago or three years ago. They are a completely different side, for better, going a bit against their ideas of attacking football. It's about controlling the game. At this moment, they are like that, a good team, and that's why they are where they are: top four comfortably and in good conditions to fight for the title."
Asked if he admired anything about Wenger's Arsenal teams, Mourinho added: "The team I met when I came to England in 2004 had everything to admire. Everything. A fantastic team. There is only one Thierry Henry, only one Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, Tony Adams, Sol Campbell, Robert Pirès … and only one team with all of them together. There is only one Chelsea with Terry, Lampard, Drogba, Cech, Makélélé, Robben, Gallas … only one Chelsea. You have to try to build a second one, but there was only one team like that, with special players and special generations."