It was the result that Jose Mourinho would’ve no doubt wanted, and it was almost certainly the performance he would’ve demanded from Roma.
The Italians were on the harder side of the UEFA Europa
On both levels, it was mission accomplished.
Roma take a draw back to what will surely be a cauldron of noise at the Stadio Olimpico in a week’s time. Some 70,000 fans have already bought tickets for what is Roma’s third European semi final in five seasons, a feat no other team from Serie A can rival.
Roma took an early lead through Lorenzo Pellegrini after tidy work from 20-year-old left-back Nicola Zalewski on the inside left channel. The Pole fed Pellegrini, and the Italian midfielder hit the ball low and hard through Kasper Schmeichel’s legs. It was just another example of how far Zalewski has come after been given his chance to impress by Mourinho in the second half of the season, with Leonardo Spinazzola still on the recovery path after his snapped achilles tendon injury from Euro 2020, Mourinho finally has able cover in the role.
Leicester equalised through a Gianluca Mancini own goal after sustained pressure from the home side, and it times it looked like the tide would turn and Leicester would go on to win the game with the pressure building. But Roma, marshalled superbly by Chris Smalling and Roger Ibanez, held firm to earn a draw.
Slowly but surely, Mourinho is beginning to work his old magic on Roma. “If we played this game six months ago, we would’ve lost,” said the Portuguese coach following the game. And for the most part, he’s right. Mental fragility has been Roma’s biggest curse throughout its history. The club is known for always being the bridesmaid, and very rarely the bride. For a club of their size, only three league titles isn’t enough, and yet they’ve finished runners up 14 times, with the majority of that figure coming in the last two decades.
Mourinho was brought in to arrest that mentality and instil a winning one at the club. Yet coaching Roma is always a complex affair, with the city hosting dozens of radio stations dedicated simply to AS Roma and nothing else. “One Scudetto with Roma is worth 10 with Milan or Juve,” former Roma coach Fabio Capello once said. And Capello should know, having won titles with all three, including Roma’s last one in 2001.
As expected, it’s been hard work for Mourinho, never more was this illustrated than in the 4-3 home defeat to Juventus at the turn of the year. With Roma 3-1 up, they capitulated in true Roman fashion, as Juve clawed back three goals inside seven, crazy minutes to turn the game around.
Yet since then, Mourinho has managed to turn a soft side with even softer edges into more of a rough diamond. Their defeat to Inter last weekend, on Mourinho’s emotional homecoming to the club that represents the pinnacle of his career, was Roma’s first defeat in the league since the Juve game, a span of 12 games.
Many have questioned whether Mourinho still has what it takes at the highest level, but should he be given the right players this summer we could see Roma make a Scudetto challenge next season. It must be remembered that Mourinho’s first season at Inter was underwhelming, almost winning the title by default, before going on to win the treble in his second season.
No one expects Roma to achieve a similar feat, but the signs are there that Mourinho is building something in the Italian capital. Should Roma see off Leicester next week at home and make it to a first European final since 1991, then Mourinho’s Roman project is already ahead of schedule. Moreover, the process of shedding the fragile mentality that has undermined the club for so long will be well underway.