If anyone was going to hit the nail on the head about AS Roma’s evolution in Europe under Jose Mourinho, it was their captain Lorenzo Pellegrini.
“There was a time when Roma wouldn’t have recovered after conceding an equaliser towards the end,” he said after a 4-2 extra-time victory over Feyenoord sent the Giallorossi into the Europa League semi-finals.
“But now things have changed. We never give up.”
This might sound like a standard footballer platitude, but Pellegrini makes an important point. In the last two seasons under Mourinho, this team’s mentality and their ability to handle a boiling Stadio Olimpico atmosphere has been transformed.
Conference is key
Mourinho’s European record speaks for itself: two Champions League titles, two more in the UEFA Cup/Europa League and, of course, last year’s Conference League triumph.
The latter might seem like the least impressive feat, but Mourinho recognised that for the Giallorossi it represented a huge opportunity not just to end a 14-year trophy drought, but to teach his players what it takes to battle through a knockout competition without the ferocity of competition and international media attention that more the more prestigious tournaments provide.
Winning the Conference League changed this Roma side. In previous interviews of my own with Pellegrini and Tammy Abraham, they both emphasised the crucial importance of ending Mourinho’s first season with a trophy, as well as waxing lyrical about the winning mentality that the Portuguese coach has instilled at Trigoria.
Without that success, would they have made it to the Europa League semi-finals this year?
It’s impossible to say for sure, but Pellegrini’s comments suggest not. Roma have now twice come back from 1-0 first-leg deficits to win ties – doing so against Salzburg before repeating the feat against Feyenoord. That required resilience, but also newfound calm and patience.
Olimpico transformed under Mourinho
One of the major success stories of the Mourinho era in Rome – perhaps the biggest – is the way he has got the fanbase behind him, with sell-out crowds packing the Olimpico every week and producing eardrum-shattering atmospheres to support their team.
Gone are the not-so-distant days when Paulo Fonseca’s side struggled to bring huge numbers of punters through the door – the pre-pandemic figures for 2019/20 show an average crowd of 39,397. Now, it’s over 61,000.
Harnessing the full passionate fury of the Giallorossi support has given Mourinho an extra weapon for his arsenal, and he’s learned how to use it by convincing the fans as well as the players that every knockout match counts, regardless of the competition or opponent.
There have, of course, been bumps on the road. Last season’s 6-1 drubbing to Bodo/Glimt won’t be forgotten in a hurry, while this season Roma have lost four European games – to Ludogorets, Real Betis, Salzburg and Feyenoord.
The response to those results has been telling. Anyone who has attended a Roma game will know the fizzing frustration that can quickly build, the way the passionate roar can evolve into exasperated fury with the flick of a switch.
Mourinho seems to have taught his players how to deal with the cauldron of emotion.
Against Feyenoord, the crowd was almost boiling over by half time as the Dutch visitors chose to use some ‘gamesmanship’ that was straight out of the Mourinho playbook.
But Roma remained calm and patient and eventually they were rewarded for their performance with the result it merited – albeit in dramatic, last-gasp circumstances.
This is still far from a flawless side. Their over-reliance on Paulo Dybala for goals was highlighted again as the Argentinian, still not fully fit, was needed from the bench to provide the moment of brilliance that took the tie to extra-time.
And while Roma have impressed in Europe, they have struggled to replicate those big-game performances in Serie A, where their record against fellow top-seven clubs remains poor with just eight points taken from a possible 27.
But on the continental front, things are looking good. The combination of a ferocious crowd and a group of players that has seemingly learned how to perform in harmony with them makes the Giallorossi serious contenders for a second final in two years under Mou.
Talking about the fans, Pellegrini added: “I’ve not had this feeling since Roma–Liverpool (in the 2017/18 Champions League semi-final). They give everything for us, and us for them”.
For a man with such a stormy reputation, it might come as a surprise – but Mourinho has brought harmony to the capital.