One measure of the modest base from which Jose Mourinho is relaunching his reputation as a manager is the setting for his first competitive match as Roma’s head coach. They are at Trabzonspor on Thursday, a tricky test against a sturdy opponent, but in a tournament that is not aimed at Very Special Ones.
It is the play-off round of Uefa’s inaugural Europa Conference League, a third tier of the pan-European pyramid, beneath the Europa League, two rungs below the Champions League. Roma, who appointed Mourinho as successor to Paulo Fonseca in May, are Italy’s representatives by virtue of finishing seventh in Serie A under Fonseca.
Mourinho, who has won the Champions League twice, might instinctively sneer at the Conference League although he would be wise to do so quietly. Its inaugural English representatives are Tottenham Hotspur, seventh best in the last Premier League - and seventh best when they sacked Mourinho in April. Sixth or seventh place are where Mourinho has finished his last two jobs, Spurs and Manchester United.
What he and Roma both seek is a renaissance and the club, whose last Serie A title was won 20 years ago, considered luring Mourinho a great coup. Footballers with prospects evidently want to play under him, too. Roma yesterday committed €40 million ($46.9m) to the purchase, from Chelsea, of the England international centre-forward Tammy Abraham, who, if he reaches certain performance targets, could become the most expensive signing in the club’s history.
It is a big step, a first move abroad, for Abraham, who came up through the Chelsea academy and spearheaded their youth team to European and domestic prizes while Mourinho was manager of the seniors at Stamford Bridge. Abraham made his first-team Chelsea debut, at 18, a few months after the Portuguese left in 2015.
On the success of their Roma alliance much will hang. Abraham has the number nine jersey, inherited from Edin Dzeko, who, at 35, has left on a free transfer to Internazionale. What Roma want from Abraham is the sort of impact on his first Serie A season as on his first full Premier League campaign, 2019/20, when he scored 15 goals for Chelsea .
That was under Frank Lampard. Under Thomas Tuchel he fell out of favour last season. But at only 23, Abraham is “a player with a great future ahead of him,” as Tiago Pinto, the Roma general manager beamed.
The same is true of Roma’s Nicolo Zaniolo, 22, and regarded as potentially the most gifted Italian of his generation. The midfielder has been troubled by cruciate ligament problems for the last year, which ruled him out of his country’s successful Euro 2020, but has been active in pre-season. Mourinho can be a crucial mentor in his development.
There is experience, too, in Mourinho’s squad. Rui Patricio, the Portugal goalkeeper, has joined from Wolverhampton Wanderers. The defender Chris Smalling and creative midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan played under Mourinho at Manchester United. Mkhitaryan’s importance for Roma has been greater than it was at Old Trafford, which should put the Armenian on a more confident footing in his relationship with Mourinho than it was in Manchester.
What Roma and Italy have learned in pre-season is that Mourinho, who turns 59 in January, still has the feisty streak he showed during two glittering seasons at Internazionale, where he won a Treble in 2010. During Roma’s friendly at Real Betis earlier this month, he was shown a red card - one of four for Roma men - for marching onto the pitch to confront the referee in the 5-2 defeat.
“People look at me and they see a winner,” said Mourinho on his return to Italy. Apply a more critical lens, and you see a serial winner whose habit of regular prizes has diminished since he turned 50.
But this might just be a good time to bring his form of disruptive energy into Serie A. The title joust has regained its variety, Inter having interrupted Juventus’s nine-year monopoly on the title, and both those clubs are in a state of transition.
Max Allegri has been recalled as manager at Juve after the short-lived over-promotion of the novice Andrea Pirlo. At Inter, Simone Inzaghi has replaced Antonio Conte, who quit shortly after winning the scudetto, foreseeing how Inter would react to a severe financial crisis. In an attempt to ease it, Romelu Lukaku, Achraf Hakimi and Matteo Politano have all been sold.
So there is a gap for a club like Roma to rise into. “This is a club that deserves titles,” said Abraham. “I hope I can help them reach that target.”