José Mourinho has sought to pile the pressure on to Manchester City, presenting them as the red-hot Premier League title favourites for 2014, and the Chelsea manager has insisted he is not playing mind games.
Arsène Wenger, though, gave short shrift to his rival and made it plain that Mourinho's views should not be taken at face value. Wenger enters the new year with Arsenal on top of the table and the belief that City ought to be no better fancied than his club, Chelsea or the defending champions Manchester United.
Mourinho takes Chelsea to Southampton on New Year's Day, sitting third in the league, one point behind City and two behind Arsenal. He has previously said that City should be well clear already, such is the strength in their ranks, and he bristled at the suggestion that his comments about City were an attempt to unsettle them.
"You think I am? You think I'm capable of that?" Mourinho said, with a straight face, as his audience nodded and laughed. "See the [City] squad, see the players, the number of goals, the strikers. [Edin] Dzeko is the third striker of Man City. Dzeko! [Stevan] Jovetic the fourth. Do you think I'm putting pressure. Pfff.
"I don't think Man City should feel pressure. I think they know how good they are and I think they know they are the favourites. I don't think they feel any pressure."
Wenger, whose Arsenal team face a New Year's Day visit from Cardiff City, raised his eyebrows at Mourinho's words. "Do you believe him?" he asked. "Man City are favourites not more than Chelsea, for me, or Man United. They have the squad, yes. They have a squad of names who can pretend to win it. But at the end of the day, it is down to what we do on the pitch.
"Are Man City, at the moment, completely unbeatable? Not for me. They have lost a number of games away from home. They have played one more game at home, than away. We have played one more game away, than at home. So it is open."
Arsenal were last on top of the table at New Year in 2007-08, only to fade after a morale-sapping 2-2 draw at Birmingham City in late February. This season is fiendishly tight at the halfway stage, with nine points separating the top eight clubs.
"It is very difficult to say who are the main challengers," Wenger said. "Two weeks ago, you would have all said it is Liverpool and then, two defeats later, they are six points adrift. It is very difficult to predict. Liverpool, Man City, Chelsea … I forget a few … you can count Everton, even Man United. You cannot rule them out. What is for sure is that after the Christmas period, after the New Year's Day games, we will have a better idea and then go from there."
City visit Swansea City in the early kick-off, with Manuel Pellegrini keen to establish his club as the leading force in the domestic game. "We must try, at least," he said. "But it's very difficult to be dominant over here. Chelsea are a very strong team … Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham are a strong team. So are Liverpool. So it's difficult."
Mourinho sought to highlight the progress Chelsea have made compared to this time last year, when they trailed the then leaders, United, by 11 points, albeit having played one game fewer. But he continues to stick to the line about his club being in transition and, as such, title outsiders. "We are OK," Mourinho said. "Last year, in this moment, we were 11 points behind the leader, so game over. In this moment we are two points behind, so game on. Let's keep going.
"We have to protect the top four, because this season the top four will be a big achievement for everyone. And if we can protect the top four, let's see what we can do and let's see if Man City kills everybody or if they keep being close to all of us.
"The six clubs that I considered in pre-season are still there and, of course, Everton and Newcastle are also pushing for the top four. I think Tottenham and Man United are ready to attack the top four.
"The difference between the top four and being champion … it looks like it's not a big difference. So I think the first objective for everyone is to attack the top four and try to be stable in the top four."