In his very first press conference as Roma coach, Jose Mourinho insisted that he was no longer the combative character that caused one controversy after another during his two seasons in charge of Inter.
“I won’t be the one going looking for trouble,” he said. “I have more experience now. I’m more solid emotionally.”
Nobody really believed him, though, and with good cause.
MORE: Messi takes home seventh Ballon d’Or
As Marco Materazzi told the Gazzetta dello Sport on the eve of Mourinho’s first on-field meeting with Inter since quitting the club for Real Madrid in 2010, “He is the same as always. He hasn’t changed.”
Indeed, Mourinho remains as volatile as ever before.
He even canceled his prematch press conference, most probably because he once again has a bee in his bonnet about officiating.
Mourinho was not in the least bit happy with the way in which Luca Pairetto refereed Roma’s shock 1-0 loss at Bologna on Wednesday evening.
The Portuguese had been presented with something of a dilemma going into the game, given Gianluca Mancini, Rick Karsdorp, Bryan Cristante and Tammy Abraham were all one yellow card away from one-game suspensions.
Consequently, there was talk that Mourinho might rotate his squad in order to ensure that some of his key men were definitely available for Saturday’s showdown with Inter at the Stadio Olimpico.
However, the two-time Champions League winner has repeatedly – and publicly – slated the strength of his squad since taking over, most infamously after the humiliating 6-1 Europa Conference League loss to Bodo/Glimt.
Mourinho had named a much-changed lineup for the game in Norway, so when things went pear-shaped, he stated afterward, “Maybe now people will stop asking me why I always pick the same team [in Serie A].”
Given the lack of faith in his understudies, it was perhaps unsurprising that he elected to start with captain Mancini, first-choice left-back Karsdorp and star striker Abraham at the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara.
Unfortunately, the gamble backfired. Not only were Roma defeated, meaning they have fallen six points off the top four, Karsdrop and Abraham were booked.
MORE: Inter’s Christian Eriksen training alone at former club as January transfer window approaches
Mourinho was furious, revealing afterward that he felt compelled to take Mancini off with 18 minutes remaining for fear of the center back being yellow-carded too.
He was also incensed by the fact that Nicolo Zaniolo was booked for diving, with an irate Mourinho implying that the talented and much-coveted attacker is not adequately protected by Italian match officials and should consider moving elsewhere.
“I want to say something that probably goes against my interests: if I were Nicolo Zaniolo, I would start thinking that perhaps playing in Serie A means things will be stacked against me,” Mourinho sniped before cutting short his interview with DAZN.
His concern for Zaniolo’s welfare is certainly understandable.
The 22-year-old has already suffered two major knee injuries in his fledgling career; he needs all the protection he can get.
However, the cynical view is that this is one of Mourinho’s infamous attempts at distraction, a smokescreen employed to hide the fact that he is failing to get the best out of arguably his most talented player.
Zaniolo, after all, has yet to register a single goal or assist in Serie A this season, which reflects poorly on both the player and his coach.
Mourinho could certainly do with the Italy international breaking his duck against Inter, given Abraham’s absence.
The England striker’s form has fluctuated since his summer arrival from Chelsea but the goals were starting to flow before the ill-fated trip to Bologna.
Abraham was just as upset by his booking as Mourinho, even taking to social media to argue that he was the victim in his collision with Matthias Svanberg.
“I received a yellow card and miss the next game for this . . . when I was the one blocked and fouled.”
The bottom line is that Abraham will miss the visit of Inter, which is just one of several selection headaches for Mourinho.
“I’ll have to invent a lineup,” he fumed on Wednesday night.
MORE: Is Rafa Benitez borrowed time at Everton?
His squad is certainly stretched. Mourinho may have been joking when he recently said he might go to the Vatican to pray for no more injuries, but there is no questioning the desperate nature of Roma’s present predicament.
Italy duo Lorenzo Pellegrini and Leonardo Spinazzola are both ruled out until the New Year, Stephan El Shaarawy is expected to be sidelined for a further week, while Gonzalo Villar and Felix Afena-Gyan are still in self-isolation after contracting COVID-19.
Fair to say, then, that this is hardly an ideal time to be facing Simone Inzaghi’s in-form Inter, who are unbeaten in 11 matches in all competitions and have won five of their last six in the league.
It thus looks unlikely, on paper at least, that Mourinho will claim his first statement win as Roma boss this weekend, with the Giallorossi having taken just a point from their biggest league games to date, against Lazio (2-3), Juventus (0-1), Napoli (0-0) and AC Milan (1-2).
Of course, it was always unlikely that he would suddenly transform the side that finished seventh last season into Scudetto contenders.
As even Materazzi acknowledged, Mourinho was five or six players short of a title challenge. It was obvious even before the season began that reinforcements would be required in January and beyond.
“When we started this project, we all knew that it would take time, and Mourinho even said as much during the opening press conference,” sporting director Tiago Silva told Sky Sport Italia.
“We are not using it as an excuse for bad results, but because we really do need time.
“I cannot say we are satisfied, because we know that we have to do better and the results over the last month have been bad, but I am confident the work we are doing and Mourinho’s leadership will bring results in future.
“This certainly is not the right time to be doubting the project, the strategy or Mourinho’s leadership.
MORE: Rangnick explains where Ronaldo fits into his Man Utd plans
“We have to improve in every transfer window but I have to say that, four months on, I am certain Mourinho was the right choice and I am certain that he will become one of the most important coaches in the history of Roma.”
Pinto has also been at pains to stress that there has been no falling out with Mourinho over the club’s transfer policy, even going so far as to accuse the media of “trying to create some confrontation between myself and Jose.”
However, he can’t have been happy with Mourinho’s take on Roma’s signings: “The club made an effort over the summer, but it was more reactive transfer activity than building.”
Il Messaggero also claimed that the owners, the Friedkin Group, were unhappy with the way in which Mourinho allegedly threw players under the bus after the Bodo/Glimt debacle.
That episode was viewed as a red flag by those who have followed Mourinho’s career, alleged evidence that he is reaching crisis point in his coaching jobs at an ever-quickening pace.
It took three years for his Manchester United tenure to turn toxic, but less than 18 months in his last role, at Tottenham.
Mourinho is certainly already in self-preservation mode.
“I have to protect myself here and keep my feelings to myself over what is happening,” Mourinho told Sky Sport Italia after a dismal defeat at Venezia earlier this month.
“Maybe one day I will understand why certain incidents happen. There are things that stay hidden for years and one day I will understand them . . .”
For now, though, he must focus solely on somehow getting a positive result out of Saturday’s meeting with Inter.
If he doesn’t, expect him to go looking for trouble again, same as always.