Jose Mourinho hoping Tammy Abraham can fire Roma to Europa Conference League glory

Former Chelsea striker has hit 20-goal mark this season ahead of the Italian side's last-16 first leg against Vitesse Arnhem on Thursday

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A manager who criss-crosses Europe for two decades, coaching clubs in every different branch of Uefa competition, can expect, from time to time, to end up at venues outside the limelight.

Twelve months ago, Jose Mourinho, twice a winner of the Champions League, was overseeing Tottenham Hotspur’s exit from the Europa League at Dinamo Zagreb. On Thursday, he attempts to guide current club Roma to the inaugural final of the Europa Conference League as they travel to Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem in the first leg of the last-16 round.

Vitesse are infrequent visitors to European competitions. But Mourinho knows them reasonably well because of the long, developed relationship Vitesse have developed with Chelsea. Since 2010, Vitesse have been a favoured club of Chelsea to loan young players to, allowing the footballers to gain experience and the Dutch club access to up-and-coming talent.

The relationship was at its most active when Mourinho last managed Chelsea, from 2013 to 2015. In the pre-season of 2014, he took his Chelsea players to Arnhem for a training camp. To remember that expedition is to be reminded of how pre-seasons tended to promote the prospects and advertise the talents of young Chelsea players. Then the season itself would typically frustrate them.

In that summer of 2014, when Mourinho’s English champions-to-be played Vitesse in a friendly while in Arnhem, Chelsea had just won the FA Youth Cup, English football’s most illustrious under-age club trophy. Mourinho was praising the stars of that campaign, such as striker Dominic Solanke, now of Bournemouth. That summer, Chelsea would also sell a 21-year-old Romelu Lukaku, who had joined them aged 18. They ended up paying almost €100 million to bring Lukaku back last summer.

Another promising centre-forward was at that stage progressing through the Chelsea academy. His name? Tammy Abraham. In the seasons ahead, he would see contemporaries such as Mason Mount thrive on loan at Vitesse, while Abraham developed his range of skills, as a finisher and a creator, as a target man and a skilful operator playing off the shoulder of defenders, while leased out by Chelsea to clubs in England’s top two divisions. He was precocious, called up to the senior England squad shortly after his 20th birthday, while on loan at Swansea City.

Abraham had played his first senior match, at 18, for Chelsea at the tail-end of Mourinho’s last season there, 2015-16 - the Portuguese was sacked midway through the campaign - and by his early 20s seemed to have broken through the glass ceiling that so many talents from Chelsea’s fine academy confront: the difficulties of establishing a regular place in the first-team at a club who spend heavily on recruitment. In 2019-20, under Frank Lampard, Abraham struck 18 Premier League goals; the following season he reached double figures, across competitions, again.

Jose Mourinho's Roma are currently 6th in Serie A. AP

But by the time Chelsea were lifting the European Cup last May, Abraham was clearly on the margins. Thomas Tuchel had replaced Lampard; Kai Havertz and Timo Werner, expensive newcomers, were feeling out their roles in the Chelsea forward line; Lukaku would soon be heading back to Stamford Bridge. As Abraham reflected last week, “it was a difficult time in my career”.

Roma, and Mourinho, saw an opportunity, inviting Abraham to back himself in a new country, in an Italian league where, traditionally, high standards of defending challenge strikers to be smart and resourceful. Six months after Roma paid Chelsea close to €40m - inserting a buyback clause that can be activated in 2023 - Abraham is soaring.

He scored his 20th Roma goal, across competitions, at the weekend, his fifth in seven unbeaten Serie A games. Stealthily, Roma are moving into contention for a top-four finish. They sit sixth, six points and two places beneath Juventus.

“Roma showed confidence in me, and I’m happy to be paying them back for that,” said Abraham after his goal on Sunday settled the outcome against fifth-placed Atalanta. In the Stadio Olimpico somebody had hung a banner: ‘Tammy Tre Punti’ - Three Points Tammy.

If he is to end his first season in Rome as ‘Trophy Tammy’, it will mean winning the inaugural Europa Conference League. It is a competition he has warmed to - he averaged a goal every 50 minutes in the group phase - and one that would complete Mourinho’s expansive collection, a fresh title to line up with those two European Cups, with Porto and Inter Milan, his Uefa Cup with Porto, and the Europa League Mourinho won at Manchester United.

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Updated: March 10, 2022, 4:25 AM