Here’s what the boss had to say...
With what convictions, ideas, and confidence are you preparing for this match against league leaders Inter?
“The confidence that top players need to have – and we have plenty of those. Confidence, intelligence, and also the knowledge of who we are going to face.
“No team is unbeatable and that goes for Inter too. We all agree that they’re the best team in Serie A.
“We know that this is a step up compared to the three matches we’ve won since my arrival. The bar will be raised. Planning needs to be more meticulous - our preparations for this game are different since we’re up against a team who are used to enjoying a lot of possession and dominating games.
“We should also be aware that there are times when they could be under the cosh. There are means of ruffling their feathers, as is the case in any fixture. While we’re aware that we’re up against a formidable side we also know that we ourselves are a top team capable of putting in a great performance.”
I know that you’ve been in contact with Giacomo Losi's family about you not attending his funeral. I’d like to know what happened there, on your part and on Roma's part.
“I'll tell you about what happened with me. I didn't ask. I didn't ask when or where it was. I had my head turned by our match the day before and the post-match activities, so I made this mistake. It’s a serious mistake, which I regret. But it wasn’t a ‘decision’ I regret. I didn’t do it in bad faith. It annoys me and I’m sorry that I didn’t get to bid him farewell.
“If he had died two months ago when I wasn’t the coach of Roma, nothing would’ve changed. It's not a matter of following protocol or my job role; it’s about the relationship I had with him.
“I know what this relationship was all about. His son is very similar to him – after all, the apple never falls far from the tree - and his reaction made me see that he’s very similar to Giacomo. He knows very well what kind of relationship we had. I'm so sorry I didn't say goodbye, but I won’t go on. I don't know what else I can do. It’s a serious oversight because of the relationship we had. That's what it was.
“I've read some versions of events, but actually I wasn't busy and that’s why it annoys me even more. I didn't do anything all day. I came home, I read something on social media by Matteo De Rose [laroma24.it’s editor], and I saw these photos of the funeral and I thought: “I can’t believe it.” However, I spoke to Roberto Losi [his son], who was great with me, and I think the most important thing was to talk to him and apologise to him.
“As for my relationship with the legends of Roma's past, and respect for Roma's history, I think there have been many other times when I’ve got these things right. This time I was careless, I’ve apologised, and I hope that’s the end of it. It ought to be the end of it.”
Back to the subject of the match, this will undoubtedly be a special occasion for Romelu Lukaku. What performance are you expecting from him? Do you think that he’ll be especially fired up given he’s up against his former employers?
“I try to separate the emotional side of things from the business of football. I have to communicate with my players’ hearts and heads, but also with the footballer in them. I’d be happy if he played as he did against Cagliari.
“Obviously it’ll be a greater challenge because we’re up against a better opponent, but I really enjoyed his performance against Cagliari. He was a real team player: he held up the ball well, started off some significant moves, stretched Cagliari’s defence with his runs in behind, and had 5, 6, 7 shots on target. And if Romelu has that many shots every game, then he’ll get a lot of goals.
“As for other matters and emotion playing a role – he’s no longer a kid, so he’ll be able to handle it. Sometimes when you play against your former team you score against them and play a blinder. There are other times in which you put in poorer performances and it seems that the occasion got the better of you, but sometimes you’re just up against a top team and it’s natural that you see less of the ball, that you’re less involved, that you play less well.”
Among the characteristics of this Roma side, who you quite rightly describe as being a top team, is that they struggle against Serie A’s big clubs. Out of such opposition you’ve only beaten Napoli, and if we put Bologna in this bracket then you’ve lost six out of nine matches against the top clubs. What’s the reason behind this? Does it come down to your approach, or is it just coincidental?
“There’s no such thing as coincidence in football – I don’t believe in it. You're asking me to comment on matches from before my time, moments and match preparation for which I had the same perspective as you – a fan, an observer.
“However, these stats tell a story – there’s no disputing them. Let’s see how we get on tomorrow and if such problems persist. When you play against strong teams there’s the chance that you lose or they play better than you. That being said, we’re a good side ourselves and sooner or later it’ll be our turn to put in a top performance against a side in the upper echelons of Serie A.
“We also know that on the pitch the football does the talking. Inter are a top side, as are Milan, and Juventus are hitting their stride once more. As for Roma – at least as far as I'm concerned, I’ve only just joined – we’re trying to start a cycle and we don’t know how long it will last but want to give both the players and everyone around the confidence that we’re back to being a team that wins many of these huge fixtures.
“As for Inter – who’ve always been a force to be reckon with – we beat them many times during my playing days. The same goes for Milan, Juventus. Napoli and so on. If the stats aren’t in our favour, we’ll try to revert that.”
Could it be a mentality issue?
“We’re talking about players who’ve starred for Manchester [United], who are World Cup winners, who’ve conquered a Copa America in the Maracana against Brazil, who won the European Championships against England in their own back yard, who’ve won so many huge games against top teams.
“It would be offensive to the players to suggest that they’ve got mentality issues when it comes to facing top teams. The thing is, such teams have their own great players, and sometimes they prevail over your stars – sometimes it can go either way in such scenarios. We’ll try to make sure that it’s Roma who come out on top this time around.
“As far as mentality goes, I don’t think my players have any issues. Otherwise they wouldn’t have had the careers they’ve had, won the things they’ve won against top teams, which almost every one of my footballers has done.”
You faced Inter more times than any other in your career. Do you have a memory which sticks out for you, or several?
“There were many seasons in which we fought neck-and-neck with them, with Scudetto and Coppa Italia glory at stake. It was a two-horse race for a while. Aside from a handful of Coppa Italias and an Italian Super Cup the Nerazzurri always came out on top, so clearly they were the better side.
“I’ve got pleasant memories of those times. The rivalry was passionate and fiery, yet respect always prevailed on the pitch amongst the players. I think that's still the case today. I'm a bit gutted that we've already played both Inter and Milan and that I won’t be going back to San Siro. It’s the most thrilling place to play football, except for the Olimpico, obviously. It’ll be nice to cross paths with some Inter players again, ones with whom I shared a dressing room at international level.
“I believe that tomorrow’s match will be worthy of those classic encounters between 2008 and 2010. Our goal is to once more be fighting at the top with them, where the gap will be a point or two, rather than the present 20.”
How much can Chris Smalling's return change the makeup of Roma’s defence? What about Renato Sanches – could he also become a crucial part of your midfield?
“He’s a big part of the team like any other player. Given the amount of fixtures we’ve got in front of us we’ll be drawing upon every member of the squad. Those two players are getting back into shape, becoming closer to the level of their team-mates. They’ve had to do this given that they’ve not trained a lot with the squad.
“Anyway, they’re training. After training they work on their fitness. Their playing mentality, attitude and fitness are coming back. Obviously I’ve not seen much of them on the pitch but I like what I’ve seen so far. I’m sure that they’ll be important for us.”
When you're preparing to play a team that – on paper - is better than you, I think respect is something you have to bear in mind but only up to a point, and I'm sure you'll have worked on not having an inferiority complex. In that sense, I wanted to ask you about Stephan El Shaarawy, who has had a central role since you came in with his constant running. Beforehand, he was more of a secondary figure.
“You're right that one of the hardest tasks for both the coach and the players themselves is to take on a team that the league table says is better than you. You have to show respect but you also need a bit of cockiness because we're not the new kids on the block – we're Roma. We're playing at home, with 65,000 in the stands. If you show too much respect, it can easily turn into fear, and fear will lose you games. You need to be intelligent about it, with your strategy, your tactics and your mental approach too.
“There will be times tomorrow when we're going to be on the back foot, as you expect when you play bigger teams. When you prepare for the match on the computer, you always have the ball and you destroy them, but then you go out there, they move about and don't let you have the ball because they're so good.
“You have to be aware and mature enough to recognise that you'll have those 5, 10, 15 minutes when they might peg you back. But if you let them and it becomes 30, 40, 50 minutes, then you offer yourself up to them and hand them victory.
“We have to go out there and believe we can win because it's true. It's not that we have to believe in something... that's a dream. We can win. Sassuolo beat Inter, for example.
“In the long term, over a 38-game league season, they've shown that we can't keep up with them. The numbers tell us that. But in a one-off match, I totally believe we can win, just as I totally believe we might struggle because they can make it hard for and beat any team. They've played Lazio, Napoli, Juventus, Fiorentina, Milan… If they win them all, it means they're better than everyone else.”
What about El Shaarawy?
“I've known Stephan for many years. He's improved the mental side of his game immensely. He used to be really nice, soft, almost lightweight. I'd get really angry with him! Sometimes we joke about that and I remind him of the things I used to say on the pitch when he wouldn't put in certain tackles.
“Now he's grown into a real player. His approach has changed. When I used to watch Roma as an observer, whenever he came on I got the impression he could make something happen – be it scoring or creating chances. He's a player I like a lot. I like [Nicola] Zalewski too – he did really well when he came on against Cagliari. They're our main players who can play high on the left. I'm counting on both of them a lot.
“Until now I've started with Stephan because for various reasons I thought he offered us a little bit more but Nicola is totally in my thinking and I'm happy to have them as our two left wingers.
“As for whether El Shaarawy will play, you're asking me too much there! In every match you have to choose your players, choose your strategy, choose how to counter your opponents. I want to take a bit more time to figure out what we're going to do, although I have a fairly good idea.
“I can't tell you if Stephan will play. I can tell you if others will play but if I tell you about him, you'll understand our starting line-up.”
Is bringing Edoardo Bove into the team and changing tactics an option given the upcoming game against Feyenoord and the need to manage resources?
“It's normal to make changes, regardless of the game. We're totally focused on this one. We know our next game will be just as important – decisive since it's a knock-out – but we'll put out what I think is the best team to beat Inter. That's it.
“Players like Bove and others will play in these matches. They'll play their part as they always have but we're not going to rotate because of the next match. We might think about the one after and this one before, considering the players who can't go to Rotterdam because they're not on the UEFA squad list, but we're not going to make tactical changes because of the game afterwards.”
After the Cagliari match, Claudio Ranieri said you're destined for great things. Three matches ago you were seen as a gamble. How do you see yourself as a coach right now?
“I don't know. I read articles about me being 'destined' for things a couple of years ago, but not many people thought that when I got sacked from SPAL. And not many considered me when they were looking to bring in a new coach. A lot of doors remained shut, as you'd expect after those four or five not-so-good months.
“Anyway, I don't think there's any such thing as being 'destined'. I believe I can do this job, I want to do this job and I'm very passionate. Perhaps a little fortunately I've found myself in the job I'd dream of doing all my life, so I'm trying to give it my absolute all without worrying about labels, or what did and didn't happen before.
“There may have been an element of chance in me coming here but it's an important sign for me. It means I'm dealing with the side of football I know best, unlike what I was dealing with last year.
“I almost feel more comfortable here, where in theory it's tougher, compared to where the level is lower, but I'm not thinking about labels or what might happen. I'm thinking one day at a time and just focusing on enjoying the ride. I don't know how long it will last but I'm loving it.”