Here’s what Jose Mourinho had to say on the eve of Roma’s Europa League semi-final first leg against Xabi Alonso’s Bayer Leverkusen on Thursday.
Another European semi-final awaits. Roma have faced some tough teams with real quality on the way and are now set to face another. It’s another side that dropped out of the Champions League.
“It’s the second team from the Champions League that we’ve faced as Red Bull Salzburg also dropped out in the group stage. That’s how the Europa League is. That’s why it’s become a top-level competition. Halfway through, teams with different levels of potential and status come into it.
“How many games have we played in it now? Six, eight, ten, 12 already. Now we face this hurdle. Obviously, with all the problems that we have, we can’t give Bayer any gifts in the game tomorrow. We’ll go out there with everything we have in terms of quality and desire while trying to get a result that allows us to take a lead into the second leg and then try to reach the final.”
Rudi Voeller said that Bayer Leverkusen may have an advantage in terms of freshness as they play in an 18-team league. Do you agree? Will Paulo Dybala start the game?
“I forgot something first of all. It was written that at half time of the Primavera match, I went into the dressing room to speak to the players and changed the game by motivating them.
“This is an absolute lie and shows no respect to the Primavera coaches. I did go into the dressing room. The assistant coach did his job, given that the head coach was suspended. I was just there to listen, I didn’t do anything and didn’t say anything about the match. From an ethical point of view, I would never do that and I think it’s a shame. They won because they deserved it. This has nothing to do with tomorrow’s game, but I want it to be clear because I have so much respect for the Primavera coaches.
“As for your questions. I don’t know if Dybala will start. Let’s see tomorrow. I don’t want him to play tomorrow and for you then to say I’m a liar. I’ll now say no because I think it’s a no.
“Regarding what Rudi Voeller said and whether I agree or not, the first thing to do is to show respect. He was a top player and is a great football man. He has enough experience to say what he said. I don’t think he’s far from the truth. Being in an 18-team league certainly changes something compared with a 20-team competition.
“What it changes is the fact that in Germany they’ve thought about the possibility of a German side reaching a European semi-final, so they didn’t have to play in the week leading up to the tie. Nobody in Italy believed in the Italian sides. Nobody thought an Italian team could reach the semi-finals. The five Italian semi-finalists actually had midweek fixtures last week, which meant we couldn’t play on Friday, as Bayer Leverkusen did. At this stage of the season, an extra day or a day fewer to rest makes a difference.
“Another thing that makes a difference is the fact that Bayer have so many options. For example, [Callum] Hudson-Odoi and [Patrik] Schick are injured at the moment. Maybe they’ll be back, I don’t know, but they do have so many players and it’s not a problem for them. Whenever any of our players get injured, it’s obviously a problem for us. We’re heading into a semi-final in which you need to be at your best and we aren’t because we have so many injuries, but let’s see how it goes. It’s just the first half tomorrow and we’ll then play the second half in Leverkusen. We’ll see if we get any players back for the away leg because that might really help us out. Either we win and reach the final or we lose, but we’ll certainly have given everything out on the pitch.”
You’ve spoken about the problems in the Roma squad for some time. Does general manager Tiago Pinto believe this team is suitable for the Champions League? Is there a difference of opinion between you two?
“A squad without problems is one with enough quality to do everything it was doing, whether it was coming second, third or fourth in the league or qualifying for the Europa League. Every time you’ve asked me what Roma’s objectives are, even during periods without injuries or suspensions, I’ve always responded with the same ‘it depends’ because it does depend.
“When we have problems, we don’t have the squad for it. When we don’t have any issues and we’re all at the top of our game, especially when we play once a week, we have enough quality in the squad. We don’t have 25 players at the same level, so that if Chris Smalling gets injured, so and so plays instead. If Dybala is injured, so and so comes in. We don’t have that. I don’t think there’s any disagreement between the club and me in that regard.”
But it’s normal to get injuries during the course of a season.
“Of course, but Roma can’t cope. There’s also the [Ola] Solbakken situation with him unable to be added to my Europa League squad list due to the Financial Fair Play limitations. It’s not an accusation aimed at anyone and I’ve never said, ‘I want him and you don’t want to give him to me’. There’s no problem.
“The only problem is seeing, for example, that Inter started [Romelu] Lukaku and [Joaquin] Correa the other day, so they’ll certainly play [Edin] Dzeko and Lautaro [Martinez] tonight and I can’t do that. This means that when you have problems, tiredness and injuries, you just can’t get to the same place.
“You have to have the perfect season not to get any injuries or anything else. That doesn’t exist. That’s why based on my experience, I stayed well balanced when we had everyone available and Paulo was scoring goals, Smalling was playing brilliantly and I said, ‘Stay calm because we don’t know how this will end’. That’s what it’s about.
“It’s the voice of experience not criticism. Sticking with the example of Inter, the last team that we faced. [Robin] Gosens was injured, so [Federico] Dimarco played at wing-back. [Matteo] Darmian finished the game at wing-back and they brought on [Stefan] De Vrij, while I had Filippo Missori, Giacomo Faticanti, Luigi Cherubini and I can’t remember who else on the bench.
“This is how it is. It’s not a criticism, it’s the reality. If we’d gone out of Europe in December, we’d be second or third in the league now. We would be in second or third place because we wouldn’t have that tiredness and we wouldn’t have this many injuries. If we weren’t part of a real battle in the league and were lower in eighth place, I’d have put everything into the Europa League and maybe we’d be in better shape.
“We’re victims of how well the lads have done throughout the season. We’re in a situation in which we could win a trophy. We might reach a final, we might not. In your eyes, if we didn’t get there, there might be talk of a not-so-good season. I’ll certainly tell the lads it’s been a fantastic season regardless of the results in the last three weeks.”
What have you made of your squad and the response you’ve seen in recent days?
“The squad is so ready. Do you know what problems I have for tomorrow? In Italy, you can have 15 players on the bench, but in Europe you can only have 12. The players are asking me if they can be on the bench. Smalling, [Rick] Karsdorp, [Stephan] El Shaarawy all want to be on the bench. I can see they’re all so ready from an emotional point of view that we’re not having a pre-match training camp today.
“They’re all going home and we’ll be back tomorrow. There’s no need for anyone to be here to get motivated or focused. We’ve worked hard on our tactics on the training pitch today and yesterday. We’ve had a technical meeting. We’ll decide who plays tomorrow whether it’s this one, that one or someone else. We’re so ready. That’s why I’m saying that we’ll either lose having given everything or we’ll win and celebrate accordingly.”
Will the Bayer Leverkusen tie be the key to the season?
“Of course, and some people will be particularly happy. More than ‘some’ in fact.”
Xabi Alonso played under you as coach 151 times and under [Pep] Guardiola 79 times. He says he takes more inspiration from Guardiola, even though Bayer are a team that defend and play on the counter-attack. What do you make of him?
“I’m pleased to be seeing him. I haven’t seen him in many years. I’ve always had a fantastic player-coach relationship with him and also a bit more than that. It’ll be a pleasure to be with him before and after the game. During the match itself, whether you’re up against Xabi or Simone [Inzaghi] doesn’t change anything.
“If I’m not mistaken, Xabi was coached by [Rafa] Benitez, [Carlo] Ancelotti, Guardiola, me and certainly others. Whether he takes more from one coach over another or doesn’t take anything from a different one is completely normal in my book.
“What I’ll say is that Bayer Leverkusen are the team that I’ve watched in Europe this season that are the best on the counter-attack. If he might like a different style of football, that’s something else. In the meantime, he’s showing real quality as a coach and the pragmatism to play in a way that’s suited to his players. He has five or six players who could be at the Olympics competing with [Marcell] Jacobs in the 100 metres based on how fast they are. They play purely on the counter. They defend in numbers and they’re almost impossible to stop on the counter.”
What’s the latest on Smalling’s fitness? Could he be back for the second leg?
“He’s fit enough for the bench tomorrow. As for the return leg, we’ll have to see. I don’t expect him to feature in the next two or three games. I’m not expecting that. Something unexpected may happen. Let’s see if we go to Budapest. He’ll be coming with us if we do.”