Roma might have their mojo back after four wins in five, but Jose Mourinho still has a task on his hands to outrun the demons from that dark and cold night in Norwegian town Bodo six months ago.
In one of the most humiliating nights in his career, the former Chelsea and Tottenham coach saw his side hit for six against the relatively unheard of minnows FK Bodo/Glimt in the Europa Conference League group stage.
Mourinho will take his side back to Norway for another visit to the Aspmyra Stadion – this time in the quarter-finals of the competition – in the knowledge that they surely cannot produce as bad a performance as last time.
Roma have now got their act together – with four wins in their last five – and their push for a Champions League spot is now back on track after pulling within four points of fourth-placed Juventus.
They are seen as favourites to lift the inaugural Conference League – despite the likes of Marseille and PSV standing in their way.
But to get there, they will have to overcome a team that has become something of a banana skin for them this season – having taken four points off them in the group.
The first was a harrowing 6-1 defeat that saw Mourinho’s experimental side ripped apart, with the manager giving a damning assessment of those who had been given a chance to shine.
‘We lost against a team that showed more quality on the night. It’s that simple,’ he said after the eye-opening defeat. ‘Their first team is a much better team than our second team.
‘It’s my mistake. I wanted to rest players after the game against Juventus and before the game against Napoli. I made these decisions, and in the end, they are better players than my players.
‘If I could always play with the same XI, then I would. It’s risky because we have a huge gap in quality between the two groups of players.
‘I knew the limits of this squad, it is not new to me, but I still expected a better response. I decided to play this line-up, so the responsibility is mine.
‘I never disguised the fact we were a squad with real limitations. We have 13 players who represent one team. The others are on a different level.’
Since that chastening night, Mourinho has rung the changes. Defenders Bryan Reynolds and Riccardo Calafiori have since left the club, with only Roger Ibanez, Marash Kumbulla and Rui Patricio surviving from the backline.
In fact, that trio – in addition to Carles Perez and Amadou Diawara – were the only players still involved in Roma’s last matchday squad for the 1-0 win over Sampdoria.
Roma will be in a much more confident mood this time around, with former Manchester United centre-back Chris Smalling leading the defence and ex-United and Arsenal midfielder Henrikh Mhkitaryan finally showing his quality.
The Armenian has four goals and five assists this season and netted the winning goal against Sampdoria last time out.
Tammy Abraham is also in full swing and scoring for fun – with 15 strikes since signing for the Italian giants last summer. There are plenty of reasons for optimism but also just as many to be cautious against Bodo/Glimt.
Even in the home leg against the minnows, Roma could only draw 2-2 – and that was with a much stronger team featuring the likes of Bryan Cristante, Nicolo Zaniolo, Mkhitaryan and Abraham.
Roma, who had to fight back from going behind twice in that game, know this team are no pushovers but are also aware that there cannot be a repeat of the last two performances.
View from Italy by Alvise Cagnazzo
The Roma you see today is totally different to the one that was massacred in Bodo last October.
Mourinho is a magician who has changed Roma, erasing the memories of that horrific defeat by revolutionising the team.
Above all, he has given a second chance to players he had previously lost trust in. Mkhitharyan’s rise to form again is a prime example after becoming a decisive player once again.
Mourinho has lifted the team by helping an elite player reach the top of his game once again. The Armenian is no longer seen as a Premier League has-been. He is now viewed as a very technical player who can be decisive for Roma as they make their final sprint in Serie A and the Conference League.
Rome has become a key part of his life – the city where his son was born – and he is set to renew his contract for another year in due course.
The club’s two main targets for the season are to return to the Champions League by grabbing a spot in the top four and finishing the campaign by lifting the Conference League trophy.
Even if the first goal proves to difficult to reach, ending the season with a trophy is well within the realms of possibilities thanks to Mourinho’s work of revitalising this team with fresh ideas.
The Mourinho effect
Nearly everything has changed since Roma’s most shocking and unexpected defeat against Bodo/Glimt in October. In truth, it was the worst night in the 94-year history of the club.
Roma had lined up with a 4-2-3-1 formation in that game, but more recently Mourinho has opted to play a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3, with Ibanez, Smalling and Gianluca Mancini as his three centre-backs. Abraham has then been joined in attack by Zaniolo and Lorenzo Pellegrini.
Mourinho has embarked on a clear-out of his deadwood since losing the first game to Bodo/Glimt. Kumbulla, Ibanez and Patricio – Roma’s hero – have survived the cull.
Reynolds has been sent on loan to Belgium, Calafiori has gone to Genoa and Borja Mayoral is with Getafe. Meanwhile, Ebrima Darboe, Gonzalo Villar and Diawara have disappeared from their manager’s radar.
With four defenders giving way to the return of the three, Smalling is in the centre of defence and the team can now begin to dream of an exciting finale to this season.
Zalewski the future
Nicola Zalewski – just 20 years old – has come to Roma’s rescue this season after Mourinho converted him from a central midfielder to a left-winger. This is one of his best tactical innovations of the last decade.
The player has warmed to the tactical ideas of his boss and become reborn as a left-midfielder. In the 3-5-2 formation, Mourinho has found the perfect role for his young star, who grew up in the club’s academy – watching on as legends like Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi strutted their stuff in the first team. Now his legend begins.
Zalewski has made the left-wing position his own for six straight games in Serie A – becoming a top player in his own right and winning the trust of the fans. Matias Vina – who had started 18 games in the league this season – is now considered his understudy.
His other challengers are Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who is now not considered a starter, while Stephan El Shaarawy is seen as an option off the bench. Zalewski is one of the best discoveries in Serie A history and can be a very important player for Roma.
Former Roma and Poland striker Zibi Boniek recently gushed about Zalewski – saying he has ‘everything’ he needs to succeed at the club while praising the work of Mourinho in unearthing him.
‘Nicola is certainly a footballer monitored by Poland,’ he said. ‘I know coach [Czeslaw] Michniewicz is following him and wants to come to Rome to see him play.
‘The boy has everything [he needs] to do well: basic technique, speed, jumping. Mourinho has cut out this new role for him, he is doing very well. He has [a big] future ahead of him. It is up to him to make the most of it. Jose is the right man for the job. If Roma finished fourth, it would be a miracle.’
Courtesy: Daily Mail UK