The glaring and wailing turn to praising and cuddling

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The Independent Football

It ends with an embrace when, just for a moment, a few minutes from time, you fear it may end in an explosion of epic proportions as two mighty egos come close to colliding. Aston Villa's Juan Pablo Angel is clear in the Chelsea half and, with just Claude Makelele in attendance, he goes to ground. The referee, Graham Poll, witnesses nothing amiss. Not for the first occasion Martin O'Neill dances a fandango of rage on the touchline. Jose Mourinho strides over to his counterpart, seemingly intent on a face-to-face confrontation. Instead, they simply hug each other. It is an act the pair repeat at the final whistle.

In that instant, you sense that three years of open sores that had been festering since the 2003 Uefa Cup final have been healed. "We said some nice words," Mourinho explains their sudden bonhomie. "I think he's a good guy, a motivator. His team fight a lot. Sometimes players and managers like him deserve a little bit of luck - and happiness." O'Neill adds: "I was contesting a lot of decisions, and he said I might get a heart attack. He's probably right. It's a change, though, considering that in 2003 he was contesting all the decisions, so perhaps today I got my own back."

The acrimony between the pair can be traced back to that final between Porto and Celtic. It was a night when challenges were made and words were said. "Over-physical," claimed Mourinho, accusing Celtic's Bobo Baldé of trying to end Deco's career. "Embarrassing," retorted O'Neill, recalling what he saw as the histrionics of Mourinho's men in that tempestuous game.

Now perhaps we are witnessing a new, contrite Mourinho, who only recently was proffering a hand towards his nemesis, Rafa Benitez. He is particularly diplomatic in the match programme, offering "a special welcome to Martin", describing that Uefa Cup final as "one of the best football matches of the decade", and adding: "From that moment I have admired the coach and the person."

Yesterday, just a few yards apart, they are mannequin and manic in the first half. Mourinho, finger to lips, feet up, could have been basking on the Algarve. Just occasionally, he leaps to his feet and issues a cryptic message, fingers working shapes like an origami artist. His counterpart, needless to say, is rather more demonstrative.

There aren't too many Premiership managers who wear boots as well as tracksuits for matches. There is a suspicion that O'Neill maintains an almost touching belief that he may just get a game if he turns up in them. The former Nottingham Forest player views the action like a man bound in chains. He twists and turns and leaps, and constantly looks as though he'd long to extend one of those boots and influence proceedings.

Chelsea's early goal subdues him. Briefly. Then something innocuous irks him; the suspicion of a shirt-pull on one of his players. It provokes a chain reaction. He begins by muttering at the fourth official, Dermot Gallagher, who attempts in vain to placate him. Before long, O'Neill becomes a man possessed by perceived injustices.

Finally, after Gavin McCann has been pulled up for a foul, and O'Neill voices his objections from a few yards, Poll confronts the Villa man near the dug-out and engages in a headmasterly chat with him, directing a finger towards the stands. The message is clear.

O'Neill explains later: "Graham said that I shouldn't keep contesting decisions - and he's right. There's only one referee." The Ulsterman pauses before adding wryly: "It would have been good if he'd been it." After the break, the touchline theatre becomes increasingly melodramatic. O'Neill complains bitterly after his side are penalised. Mourinho, irritated by the response, gestures at him, as though attempting to swat away a fly. Mourinho glares at O'Neill and shakes his head.

Now the steam begins to rise as Shaun Wright-Phillips almost breaks the bar from an acute angle and Frank Lampard heads over. Mourinho, for once animated, rushes over to acclaim what he believes is a goal, and nearly collides with O'Neill. Now he has to be restrained by Gallagher. Chelsea look as though they might winit at the death, but Villa hold on. At the whistle, the respective managers just hold each other. Peace in our time.