Tomorrow's Europa Conference League match against Zorya comes at an awkward time for our American readership. With a 3 PM EST kickoff time, Thursday's match comes smack in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner, which we eat in the middle of the afternoon for some reason. Following their dramatic win over Genoa on Sunday, things won't be quite as awkward for José Mourinho and Roma, but they will definitely look to feast on their Ukrainian opponents, who they handled rather easily last time around in a three-nil victory.
Prior to tomorrow's match, Mourinho and midfielder Jordan Veretout had the honor of speaking to the press earlier today. Here are some of the best bits from Mr. Mourinho.
On the match and its impact on the group standings:
It’s very clear. If we win we are through, if we lose we are out. A draw leaves everything still up in the air. We will still have our destiny in our hands if we draw or win in Bulgaria on the final matchday. So that’s it, it’s all very clear.
What does that mean? It means that it is a final for us and for them. It’s a really important game. It will be tough to keep playing in two competitions for months, the league and the Conference League, but it’s a problem that we want to be having. We don’t want to go out. And that’s why tomorrow we will put in maximum effort to win the game.
Thanks to their, shall we say, disappointing pair of results against Bodø/Glimt, rather than breezing through the group stages, Roma now faces a must-win against Zorya. As Mourinho said, a draw still keeps them mathematically alive for the next round, but a win—and a definitive one at that—should be the top priority.
There’s nothing in particular I want to see from his performance. I expect all of the players to work for the team. Like how the team won in Genoa; as a team that looks to dictate the game, that looks to do everything possible to find a way to win. And so I don’t expect anything different to that from him.
It’s as I already said after the game in Genoa. Even if he didn’t play in the game, I liked the way he celebrated [Felix’s goals]. It was as if he had been out there too for 90 minutes. So I just expect a team player, like I do from all my players, and nothing else from Zaniolo.
After unsubstantiated rumors of a rift between Mourinho and Zaniolo, this was a carefully crafted answer from The Special One, who stressed his team-first philosophies and was quick to point out how overjoyed Zaniolo was for Felix's achievements on Sunday. These rumors were likely much ado about nothing, and if Zaniolo starts tomorrow, he'll have plenty of time to shine.
Not to beat a dead horse, but we have to remember that Zaniolo lost nearly two full seasons to catastrophic knee injuries, so his return to the pitch was never meant to be a linear process free from hiccups. And on top of the physical challenges of recovering from two ACL surgeries, Zaniolo, at only 22-years-old, is still figure out who he is as a player, and he's doing all of this while adjusting to life under one of the game's most contentious and demanding managers—not an easy task for any player.
He'll be fine.
On Tammy Abraham's recent performances:
Yes, I’m satisfied. When you are a forward for a side that creates lots of chances and looks to play with an attacking intent, then perhaps he could have scored a few more goals. But he works really hard for the team, in the build-up phase. So for me there is no issue.
In terms of the team dynamics he is a team player who makes the right movements off the ball both when we are attacking and when we are defending – to close the spaces, to press, to make life hard for the opposition. He’s added a new dimension to the work he does for the team that perhaps he didn’t have before. And sooner or later the goals will come too – then he will have everything. He’ll have the team work and he’ll have the goals too.
So right now I am not worried at all. He started really well, he left a great impression on everyone including the fans, and then after that there was a slight dip in form. But that seems normal to me, especially considering he picked up a knock while away with the national team.
I’m really pleased with him. He will play tomorrow too – Zaniolo, Tammy and Rui all will. So now you just need eight more names
The simple fact that Roma dropped €45 million on Abraham leaves him with next to no breathing room. While he's doing all the ancillary things well, as Mourinho points out, at the end of the day, Roma broke their transfer record with visions of 18 to 20 goal campaigns on the regular from Abraham.
If his career averages are any indication, Abraham is likely to rebound from his current rough patch sooner or later, but as Mourinho said, these dips are normal; he'll come good, but whether or not the fanbase remains patient is an entirely different matter.
On the much-discussed three-man defense:
I don’t like playing with five at the back. It’s one thing to have a three-man defence, another to have five. I don’t like to have five at the back. We were without our left-backs and so we decided to go with three at the back, with El Shaarawy on the left – someone who is not a full-back and means the side absolutely is not playing with five across the back.
This solution worked really well in terms of our standard of play, but perhaps not in terms of the result – if we look at the game in Venice. It fared better in Genoa
But this squad was not built to play a three-man system. When you are building a squad to play with a three-man defence then you can’t have just four centre-backs. You wouldn’t have as many attacking midfielders as we have. So this setup is well suited to some but not for others.
But that’s how we played and the players made the sacrifices asked of them. And they did that well. It’s something that we should always have in our back pocket as an option. The target is to go back to a formation that we want to build upon over time – but it’s important that we have now developed this as an option. It looks good to me
There you have it: While there are several players on the squad who can excel in a three-man defense, Mourinho sees it more as an option rather than the default setting. The “formation that we want to build upon over time” is likely the 4-2-3-1 we've seen for most of the season, but if nothing else, Mourinho is proving he knows how to adjust to the prevailing winds.
On what he's learned about life in Rome:
I know my players better now. For example, seeing El Shaarawy playing as a wing-back – it’s something I didn’t think he could do. I saw him last season as a player who had lots of highs and lows. There were fitness issues, problems adjusting to the intensity of the games. I always thought he was a great player, but perhaps a good option for one game and better left out for another, or just to use off the bench.
But now he has improved and can now be a 90-minute player. And, on Sunday, he was the one to make the block in Genoa’s only chance of the game. That’s an El Shaarawy that I didn’t know before. And that’s just one example of how I am learning more about my players now. The years can go by but you can always learn new aspects of these players
You'll have to excuse me for a moment. As an unabashed El Shaarawy fan, I'm typing this through tears of joy. After essentially wasting a year of his career in China (only 16 appearances in parts of two seasons), El Shaarawy was a shell of his former self when he returned to Roma last season. And while that should have bought some extra measure of patience from the media and fans last season, as we saw, people were quick to question how much SES had left to offer.
If nothing else, we thought El Shaarawy could be Roma's first option off the bench; a pair of lively legs to bring on late in the match. But as Mourinho is slowly discovering, El Shaarawy is so much more than a spikey hairdo and flawless eyebrows; the dude can still play and, as we're seeing, contribute in multiple phases of the game.
And finally, on their lack of familiarity with Zorya:
Zorya are not a side we don’t know much about. They are unknown sides up until the point that we are drawn to face them. Then we study everything there is that we can possibly study – we have watched lots of Zorya matches, both in the league and in the Conference League.
There’s no reason not to study them and to analyse them like we would for any other opponent. We always have huge respects for the teams we face and that’s why we need to make sure we prepare fully if we want to win the game.
A win tomorrow over Zorya would give Roma 10 points after five group stage matches, which could put them back on top of Group C depending on the outcome of Bodø's match against CSKA Sofia. A draw would still keep Roma alive in the competition but would set up a literal must-win against Sofia in early December.
With tomorrow being a public holiday for most of our staff and readership, our matchday coverage may be thinner than usual, but we'll still have our usual game thread, highlights and Sinners & Saints.