Seeing Jose Mourinho prioritise European football’s third tier competition feels strange. The Portuguese icon is without a doubt one of the greatest managers of all time, racking up an astounding 20 trophies through his illustrious 22-year career. But I guess it goes to show how much his stock has fallen since his recent disappointing spells in England, with Manchester United and Spurs. It also goes to show how much Roma have fallen down the pecking order since delivering one of the Champions League’s greatest ever shocks four years ago, rising from their ruins and defeating Barcelona 3-0 in the Stadio Olimpico to reach the final four of club football’s greatest competition.
Since then, it hasn’t been plain sailing for the Giallorossi. In fact, they haven’t played in the Champions League since a shock 4-3 aggregate defeat to FC Porto the following season. Along the way, they’ve lost some key names, such as Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson, centre back Kostas Manolas — scorer of the winner on that wonderful night back in 2018 — and striker Edin Dzeko, who helped himself to 119 goals during his six-year stint in the capital city. Their decline culminated with last season’s disappointing seventh-place finish in Serie A, some six points shy of the Europa League and a further 10 adrift of the Champions League. As with every new season that approaches, though, new opportunities present themselves. Not only a special new manager but also a new competition, ready for the Romans to stamp their authority on.
Back in September, a 93rd-minute winner from the rejuvenated Stephan El Shaarawy gave Mourinho’s men a third victory in a row, sending them to the summit of Serie A in The Special One’s 1000th game in management. One could understand that their Europa Conference League tussle with CSKA Sofia four days later may be seen as a hindrance, then. Not Jose though. He played a full-strength side featuring captain Lorenzo Pellegrini and spearheaded by their new €40m English striker, Tammy Abraham. His side decimated the Bulgarians 5-1, and it was a sign of things to come.
In 2014, he described his then-Chelsea side as the smallest horse in a three-horse race, as his Blues battled it out with Liverpool and Manchester City for the Premier League title. If he managed the smallest horse back then, this year he’s managing a Shetland pony. His young squad, despite defying expectations early on, were never going to mount a serious challenge for the Scudetto. And their slump duly came, both domestically and on the continent, with the lowest point being a 6-1 drubbing by Norwegian minnows Bodø/Glimt. Another disappointing collapse was right around the corner, this time at home to Juventus. In a game where the hosts led 3-1 with 20 minutes remaining, they somehow conspired to concede three goals in seven minutes of madness, resulting in a 4-3 defeat and scenes of bedlam amongst the travelling fans.
Mourinho has since revitalised his Roman gladiators. In fact, since that cold January evening, his side have lost just twice, and have also managed to put to bed the ghost of the article circle, defeating the Norwegian champions that embarrassed them previously, this time across two legs in the quarter-finals of the Europa Conference League. This brings us to today.
Roma are nicely positioned in Serie A. Admittedly, they won’t be playing Champions League football next season. But they are well-positioned to qualify for the Europa League, in fact, it’s all but wrapped up. This means that Mourinho can turn his attention to Europe if he hadn’t already. They’re one game away from the final, a tough semi-final tie against Leicester City, managed by his former understudy, Brendan Rodgers. And does anyone really think Jose Mourinho doesn’t want to become the first and only man to lift all three of Europe’s elite club competitions, the Champions League, the Europa League, and now the Europa Conference League? If his side were to lift the trophy, you try telling him that this season hasn’t been a success, because I wouldn’t like to.
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