LONDON -- There will be a warm greeting at Stamford Bridge on Saturday between Chelsea head coach Maurizio Sarri and Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe, two men who share one of the Premier League's unlikelier friendships.
The pair have been on good terms ever since the 2014-15 season when Howe, in the process of leading Bournemouth to the championship title, asked to visit the emerging Sarri at newly-promoted Empoli and observe his methods in training.
"I asked him why Empoli, and he told me he was studying all the little clubs in Italy and France at the time, in that period, and he was impressed with Empoli," Sarri said. "I was surprised.
"I knew that Bournemouth, in this period, were winning the championship. I didn't know him or the players, but I knew the situation."
Sarri was only in his first season as a Serie A coach after diligently working his way up the Italian football pyramid, but Howe knew all about him.
"I'd heard a lot about his Empoli team and how impressive they were tactically," the Bournemouth boss said. "I was really keen to go and watch him work, so we made contact with his people and he was kind enough to allow us to come.
"I spent a period of time with Maurizio and he was brilliant with me. I learned so much. It's no surprise to see that he's one of the best coaches in the world."
Both men have come a long way since their first meeting. Sarri kept Empoli up and earned his big break at Napoli, where he came closer than anyone to bringing the first Serie A title to San Paolo since the days of Diego Maradona, while implementing a style of football as thrilling as it was successful.
Howe took Bournemouth to the Premier League and stabilised them there, without resorting to the defensive and physical tactics that many other coaches in the lower reaches of England's top flight often practise. Now, incredibly, he stands both as the Premier League's youngest manager and the division's longest-serving boss.
Bournemouth's style is technical, expansive and ambitious -- three defining features of Sarri's philosophy -- and Howe credits the Italian for enriching his tactical knowledge of the modern game. "What I saw, I was hugely impressed by and learned a lot from that experience," he said.
"He didn't need it," Sarri replied. "I'm not surprised that Eddie has got to where he has, because he's very clever and very intelligent. So I'm not surprised. I think he is ready. He is 40, but he is ready. Probably, when I was 40, I wasn't ready."
Sarri had only just committed to coaching at the age of 40, quitting his career in banking to manage Italian minor league club Tegoleto full-time. Howe was 10 years younger when he first stood in the Bournemouth dugout, having been forced to quit playing at age 30 due to chronic knee problems. One thing the two men have in common is a keen desire to make up for lost time.
They have exchanged messages in the years since Howe visited Empoli, and Bournemouth invited Sarri's Napoli to the Vitality Stadium for a preseason friendly in August 2017. It was an entertaining game that ended 2-2.
"They trained here for a couple of days, we played them and it was great to see him again," Howe recalled.
Sarri's arrival in England has the potential to complicate things; his Chelsea predecessor Antonio Conte last season admitted he found it "difficult" to be friendly with other Premier League managers, and by Howe's own admission it's simpler to "build those relationships with people you aren't competing with every week."
The level of mutual respect between the two men, however, makes that outcome unlikely.
"I've been impressed with what I've seen, they're very different to last year," Howe said of Sarri's developing Chelsea. "New managers come in and tactically he's made it a different Chelsea we're going to face.
"[In a] 4-3-3 they've been very fluid, a lot of rotations in their team, well coached and managed."
Sarri is not taking Bournemouth -- who have won on two of their last three Premier League trips to Stamford Bridge -- lightly either.
"They are a dangerous team," Sarri warned. "In the defensive phase, they are very organised. If they have the possibility to have space, they are very dangerous on the counter-attack.
"They attack the space very well in the right time, so they are very dangerous. If you don't play very well, with a high level of attention, it's easy to lose games against them."
Sarri will be hoping his Chelsea team can teach Howe a few more lessons at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, but regardless of the result he is confident it will only be a matter of time before Bournemouth's highly-regarded manager can boast a standing to match his own.
"He is a very interesting young coach," Sarri said of Howe. "I think he will make a mark on English football in the future."