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Europa Conference League final preview - Continental king Mourinho's mission to make history with Roma in Europe's newest competition
Watch the Europa Conference League final between Roma and Feyenoord on Wednesday 25 May from 7.30pm on BT Sport 1 HD & Ultimate.
Jose Mourinho is seeking a fifth UEFA club title on Wednesday night.
For Jose Mourinho, Europe is everything.
The Portuguese owes so much of his career in the game to European competition. Mourinho is a man who made his name in the Champions League and who prides success in continental football above all else.
Mourinho announced himself to the continent by storming down the Old Trafford touchline after his Porto team scored a crucial away goal to advance to the 2003/04 Champions League quarter-finals.
When he arrived at Chelsea the following summer, he said: “Please don't call me arrogant, but I'm European champion and I think I'm a special one.”
Mourinho toasted his Inter team’s defeat of Barcelona by running onto the Camp Nou pitch, his hand aloft and eyes wide, to celebrate advancing to the 2010 Champions League final.
And when Manchester United defeated Ajax in the 2017 Europa League final, it was Mourinho who stole the show at the final whistle as he celebrated wildly, signalling three fingers to the crowd in Sweden and embracing his son on the pitch.
It follows that after Roma advanced to the Conference League final earlier this month, Mourinho cried tears of joy on the touchline at the Stadio Olimpico.
In total Mourinho has won four European trophies, two Champions League titles – with Porto in 2004 and Inter in 2010 - a UEFA Cup with Porto in 2003 and the Europa League with Manchester United in 2017. The only men who are still coaching today and who’ve won more are Carlo Ancelotti, Pep Guardiola, Zinedine Zidane and Louis van Gaal.
When the 59-year-old leads his Roma team out against Feyenoord in Wednesday’s Europa Conference League final, Mourinho will become the first man to coach in four different European finals. It’s a list that includes his role as an assistant to Bobby Robson in the Cup Winners’ Cup final with Barcelona in 1997.
While these records are left unaddressed by other coaches, Mourinho embraces the opportunity to burgeon his reputation. You get the sense that he’s a man who is obsessed with leaving as much of a legacy on the game as possible.
The inaugural Europa Conference League lacks the prestige and glamour of UEFA’s more illustrious club competitions. While the Champions League final is to be held at Paris’ 80,000-seater Stade de France, the first ever Europa Conference League final will take place at Albania’s 22,000-capacity National Arena.
Teams hailing from Armenia, Estonia, Cyprus, Gibraltar and Kazakhstan made the Conference League group stages of Europe’s tertiary club competition this season.
Yet it’s been no easy ride for the big boys involved. Tottenham finished third in Group G and were dumped out after forfeiting the final group game against Rennes due to a Covid-19 outbreak. En route to the final, Roma were thumped 6-1 by Bodø/Glimt before exacting revenge on the Norwegian newcomers in the quarter-finals.
And the business end of the competition hardly feels two levels below the European Cup. The semi-final line up featured two former Champions League winners – Feyenoord and Marseille – with Mourinho’s Italian giants and 2016 Premier League champions Leicester.
“The Conference League is our Champions League,” Mourinho said ahead of Wednesday’s final. “That’s the level we’re at, the competition we’re playing in. The club hasn’t reached an occasion like this for a long time.”
The Giallorossi have reached only two major European finals in their history – the 1984 European Cup final and the 1991 UEFA Cup final – and fell short in both.
Now Mourinho could become the man to help the Italian giants break that curse. It’s easy to see the appeal.
“We just need to think about the final and the opposition we’re up against, and we’ll forget all about Roma’s history, about how wonderful it would be for the city, the club and all of us if we were to win the game,” the Roma head coach said simply.
Roma are favourites with the bookmakers to do just that. The Serie A side overcame Trabzonspor in the play-off round to qualify, and topped a group featuring Bodø/Glimt, Zorya Luhansk and CSKA Sofia with four wins, one draw and one defeat.
They edged past Vitesse 2-1 on aggregate in the round of 16, recovered from a 2-1 first-leg deficit to thrash Bodø/Glimt 5-2 in the quarters and edged out Leicester and Mourinho’s former protégé Brendan Rodgers in the semis.
The star of the show has been former Chelsea forward Tammy Abraham. The England striker has nine goals in the competition, including winners in the round of 16 and the semi-finals.
The bellowing reaction of Roma’s Stadio Olimpico to Abraham’s goal against the Foxes in the semi-final second leg told you all you needed to know about how well he’s settled in there.
Yet other than Abraham, Roma’s run to the final has been built on a solid base of experience and talent. The XI who defeated Leicester featured Portugal internationals Rui Patricio and Sergio Oliveira, Italy caps Bryan Cristante, Lorenzo Pellegrini and the coveted Nicolo Zaniolo, and Netherlands right-back Rick Karsdorp.
For Karsdorp in particular, Wednesday evening will be an emotional occasion. The defender joined Feyenoord aged nine and won the Eredivisie there before joining Roma in 2017. After struggling for game time, he was loaned back to his former club, but since returning has established himself as one of Roma’s most consistent performers.
The Dutch side’s path to the Europa Conference League final has been arduous. It began in late July with a qualifier against Kosovan side FC Drita and included further qualification battles against FC Luzern of Switzerland and Sweden’s IF Elfsborg.
Arne Slot’s men have grown and grown in confidence as the season has worn on. They emerged unbeaten from a difficult-looking Group E featuring Slavia Prague, Union Berlin and Maccabi Haifa, and thrashed Partizan 8-3 on aggregate in the round of 16.
In the quarters they overcame Slavia Prague again, while a 3-2 first-leg win in the semi-finals was enough to knock out fancied Marseille to advance to Tirana.
With the competition’s top scorer Cyriel Dessers, on-loan Arsenal forward Reiss Nelson and the sought-after Cody Gakpo in attack, Feyenoord possess a real threat.
The issue for Slot’s side has been at the back. Feyenoord have kept just three clean sheets in 19 matches in all competitions and the leaky defence is part of the reason they finished a distant third in the Eredivisie.
Now they stand in Mourinho and Roma’s way of making history in Albania. Will Mourinho add the Europa Conference League to his collection? Or will Feyenoord spring a surprise and edge out the Italians in the Albanian capital?
You can watch the Europa Conference League final exclusively live on BT Sport 1 HD & Ultimate with coverage starting at 7.30pm.