Jose Mourinho eager to regain magic touch with return to European summit

Roma face Sevilla in Europa League final with a place in next season's Champions League up for grabs

Roma coach Jose Mourinho after his team won the Europa Conference League final against Feyenoord on May 25, 2022. AFP
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Jose Mourinho dislikes looking back at his last adventure in the Champions League, where he was once a domineering figure. It needs a longer and longer memory to recall it. For more than three years, club football’s most glamorous competition has been rolling on nicely without him.

As he approached another landmark in his storied career – Wednesday's Europa League final between his Roma and Sevilla – Mourinho reflected on his many past employers. He singled out Tottenham Hotspur, his previous stop-off before Rome, as the club for which he retains least affection. The spell was trophyless, the exit fractious and the European campaigns ended badly: a 3-0 defeat to Dinamo Zagreb in the Europa League a month before he was sacked; a 3-0 loss at RB Leipzig the last time he stood to attention on a touchline while the Champions League anthem was being played.

Since then, there has been a global pandemic, two of Mourinho’s exes – Chelsea and Real Madrid – have lifted the European Cup, and Internazionale, one of the two clubs he guided to the prize, have reached its final. Mourinho, the self-styled Special One, might see all this and fear that in the so-called ‘Big Cup’, the Champions League, he is not as relevant as he used to be.

Avenues back into the competition have been closing down, too: at the weekend, Roma’s slender prospects of finishing in the top four of Serie A vanished with defeat to Fiorentina. Wednesday represents the last chance for Roma to scramble in, via the standby ticket that comes to the winner of the Europa League.

But lose to Sevilla in Budapest and the temptation for Mourinho to leave Rome and explore the managerial marketplace will grow. His Roma contract expires in 2024 but that has not made him deaf to suggestions Paris Saint-Germain are wondering if Mourinho, who brought the European Cup to Porto after a 17-year gap and to Inter after 45 years without it, might be the boss to finally end PSG’s long, expensively-funded yearning for a first European glory.

He can also survey next season’s Champions League and spot opportunity. Seasoned rivals will be missing, like Jurgen Klopp, who guided Liverpool to three of the last five finals but failed to lift them into the Premier League’s top four. Mauricio Pochettino, Chelsea’s new manager, will start that job with no European football on the schedule.

There’ll be no Luciano Spalletti, either, the architect of Napoli’s brilliant, Scudetto-winning season having chosen to take a year off. Max Allegri, a Champions League finalist in 2015 and 2017, will need to change jobs – a strong possibility – if he is to return to it. His Juventus, pending an appeal against the points deduction levied on them for false accounting, can finish no higher than fifth in Serie A.

Mourinho, who won the first of his five European trophies – the Uefa Cup with Porto – 20 years ago this month, and his most recent – Roma’s Conference League – 12 months back, sees a 2023/24 Champions League that looks as full of promise for rising managerial stars as it was for him two decades ago. Mikel Arteta, 41, of Arsenal, and Eddie Howe, 45, of Newcastle United, will make their coaching debuts in it. Feyenoord’s admired Arne Slot, 44, will be taking part in its group phase for the first time.

Others will be rewarded for resourceful work at clubs punching above their weight. Three years after coming up from Ligue 2 in France with Lens, Franck Haise has them in the Champions League for the first time in over a decade. Urs Fischer steered Union Berlin into the Bundesliga’s top flight in 2018 and, five years on, into Europe’s top competition for the first time. Real Sociedad’s qualification is reward for the enterprising Imanol Alguacil.

Roma reached Budapest having eliminated Imanol’s La Real, Slot’s Feyenoord and, in a cagey semi-final, the Bayer Leverkusen of Xabi Alonso, who is the brightest new prospect of European club management. In those contests, the 60-year-old Mourinho’s tactical nous was brought to bear. “I still have the same DNA,” he said, relishing “the pleasure of playing this final, thinking about the path we have taken here.

“A coach gets better with time, the brain gets sharper. If you lose motivation, you need to stop. But that’s not true of me. The only pity is that you can’t play in a final every week. Everything is secondary when you focus on a final. It’s not even about us getting into the Champions League if we win.”

It may not be, but he’d still appreciate that bonus, and an overdue return to the very biggest stage.

Updated: May 31, 2023, 7:02 AM