When Jose Mourinho took charge of his 1,000th match as a manager earlier this month, he initially brushed off the milestone. Reaching it, he admitted he felt thrilled. “I was lying when I said it was not special for me,” he acknowledged after Roma, the ninth club where he has been manager, had beaten Sassuolo on his landmark day.
It was win No 638 in the career of Mourinho, which is the number he valued most. He showed that with his exuberant celebrations once Stephan El Shaarawy had struck Roma’s second goal in injury time for a 2-1 victory.
Alas for Mourinho, the second ‘millennium’ of matches in his outstanding career has begun with a lower average of victories than his first 1,000 games. Match No 1001 was a resounding win in his first ever contest as a manager in the Europa Conference League - Roma 5 CSKA Sofia 1 - but match No 1002 was a defeat, 3-2 at Verona, which meant Roma slipping from the summit of Serie A ahead of a very important week.
They play Lazio on Sunday, which will be another special day for a manager who has, in the course of his 1,000 games, catalogued many of the great city derbies of European football.
In his last job, at Tottenham Hotspur, London derbies became a difficult issue, defeats to capital rivals West Ham United and Chelsea putting him under pressure. A loss in the match that counts more than any other for Spurs, the clash with Arsenal, preceding his sacking by a month.
Overall, though, Mourinho has mostly thrived in neighbourhood tussles. As Chelsea manager, he was for a long period king of a city densely populated with top-division clubs, the Special One who displaced Arsenal as London’s highest achieving club in the early 2000s.
In Milan, he was the orchestrator of Inter Milan's historic Treble in a 2009-10 season that began with a resounding 4-0 win over AC Milan. In Madrid, he did lose a Cup final as Real’s manager against Atletico, but he had won all eight derbies before that. Even in Manchester, his inferior United won two and drew one of his six derbies against a superior City.
Lisbon, London, Milan, Madrid, Manchester, Rome. Mourinho has managed major clubs in six major footballing cities, and never been in any doubt that fixtures against local rivals follow their own peculiar logic. After all, he was sacked from his first job as a senior head coach, at Benfica, only days after overseeing a resounding 3-0 win over Lisbon neighbours Sporting.
Over the last week, Romans have been telling Mourinho that the derby he will experience for the first time on the touchline of the Stadio Olimpico is unlike any other, more ferocious and in some ways more charged with significance than the versions in Manchester, Madrid or Milan.
Roma and Lazio have not been champions of Italy for 20 and 21 years, respectively. In the absence of a major trophy, local bragging rights assume an extra importance.
Roma’s ambition to end a 13-year stretch without a prize - they won their last Coppa Italia in 2008 - led them to the appointment of Mourinho, the last manager to guide an Italian club to Champions League success, and to a bigger spend in the summer transfer window than anybody else in Serie A.
They paid out close to €100 million on various reinforcements, notably at either end of the pitch, with Portugal international Rui Patricio signed as first-choice goalkeeper, and Tammy Abraham and Eldor Shomurodov brought in to lead the forward line with Edin Dzeko, Roma’s totem for a number of years, having left for Inter. Mourinho still sees shortfalls in his squad, but knows a tilt at the title is expected.
On both the red and blue sides of Italy’s capital, there is also optimism that this should be a season ripe for bringing the scudetto, the Italian title, south. Juventus look unusually frail, while Inter, the champions, were obliged to sell stars like Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi to stave off heavy debts during the summer.
Mourinho insists he will not be studying the Serie A table “until January,” although you suspect, ahead of Sunday’s meeting with Lazio - now coached by another former Chelsea manager, Maurizio Sarri - he will glance at it just to check which Rome club sits highest going into the derby.
Thursday's games will dictate that. Roma, looking to bounce back from the defeat at Verona, take on Udinese shortly after Lazio’s match at Torino has concluded. Mourinho’s team currently lead Sarri’s by two points in the table. The derby-day veteran would dearly love that advantage to have extended to eight by the end of the weekend.