Paulo Dybala arrives at Roma with Jose Mourinho facing a pivotal season

Argentine star recruited to help his coach return to the Champions League

Argentina striker Paulo Dybala celebrates after scoring against Italy at London's Wembley on June 1, 2022.  AFP
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Paulo Dybala arrived late for Roma’s latest fixture of their pre-season tour of Portugal, taking his VIP seat at the Algarve stadium only at half time of the match against Sporting.

Dybala had been held up finalising details of his three-year contract with the Italian club. He soon gathered that no friendly in which Jose Mourinho is managing is entirely friendly.

Roma picked up the first of the game’s six yellow cards soon after Dybala had sat down, ahead of a series of tit-for-tat fouls. There had already been a confrontation around the perceived dive that earned Sporting a penalty, the opening goal in a see-saw 3-2 win for the Lisbon team.

By the end Mourinho, Roma’s coach, felt obliged to substitute Nicolo Zaniolo out of concern Zaniolo might be drawn into a second booking. The game ended with Jordan Veretout, the Roma midfielder, pushing and shoving his way into the referee’s notebook.

Mourinho had his fiery moments, in two vivid exchanges with the fourth official. But then Mourinho seldom visits Iberia without creating a headline or two. Last year, during his first summer as Roma head coach, he oversaw a friendly against Real Betis which featured three Roma men sent off, among the 11 cards shown to his players.

Sporting's Matheus Nunes, left, and Roma's Jordan Veretout during the friendly at the Algarve Stadium in Faro. EPA

Dybala will not have minded the display of competitive zest by the players who, as of Wednesday, he calls teammates. The Argentine, who came to the end of his seven-year stint at Juventus last month having allowed his contract to expire, is a significant capture for Roma, his arrival evidence of Mourinho’s capacity to attract stars.

That magnetism was part of the reason Roma made the Portuguese Serie A’s highest-paid head coach. Dybala, 28, cited Mourinho as a key factor in the Italian club ahead of keen interest in him from others who, unlike Roma, will be taking part in the Champions League this season. Mourinho persuaded him that Roma can, with Dybala’s help, be in Europe’s elite competition in 12 months' time.

“It’s a privilege to be able to work with a coach like Mourinho and the speed and determination that Roma showed in wanting me made the difference,” said Dybala, a five-time Italian champion with 34 caps for Argentina. “I am joining a squad that is growing and a club that is setting down solid foundations for the future.”

Roma coach Jose Mourinho on the sidelines during the match against Sporting at Algarve stadium, in Faro, Portugal, on July 19, 2022. EPA

Roma finished sixth in Serie A in May, two places shy of Champions League qualification, and a lower berth in the table than Mourinho had targeted when, not long after being sacked by Tottenham Hotspur, he returned to Italian football, 11 years after leading Internazionale to a historic treble.

In between his two Italian employers, there have been league titles with Real Madrid and Chelsea, a Europa League and a League Cup at Manchester United, but his second decade as a top-flight head coach has not quite had the sheen of his first, when the brash young manager guided Porto to Uefa Cup and Champions League success, delivered, in his first spell at Chelsea, back-to-back Premier Leagues and won the European Cup and two scudetti with Inter.

The Spurs episode was a tetchy, short-lived failure. The United stint featured prolonged criticism of cagey tactics. He is about to embark on a third successive season of not coaching in the Champions League, a competition he has won twice and where he has been involved with every club he has managed, except Roma, since 2003. If this feels like a crossroads moment, his Roma adventure so far can still be judged a relative success. The club have under him registered a first major trophy for 14 years, May’s triumph in the inaugural Europa Conference League.

Roma triumph in Europa Conference League

They will participate in the next step-up of the Uefa hierarchy, the Europa League, in 2022/23, although the priority will be to challenge for the Italian league. Juventus’s diminished power - Dybala’s former employers have finished fourth in the last two seasons, after a nine-year monopoly on the title - encourages the idea that the scudetto, won by Inter and AC Milan in 2021 and 2022, is there to be seized.

Although Mourinho is pressing for more heavyweight recruits, to add to the veteran midfielder Nemanja Matic, Turkey full-back Zeki Celik and Dybala, Roma have an exciting look to their attack. Dybala will be partnering England forward Tammy Abraham, who had an excellent debut season in Italy, scoring 27 times across competitions.

“Dybala joining us shows a belief in the club and the work we are doing,” said the Roma sporting director Thiago Pinto. “Paulo is a player with global stature and he will add class to Roma and make us more competitive.”

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Updated: July 21, 2022, 3:16 AM