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Published on: 15 September 2021

Having won the other two in his career, Jose Mourinho is ready for a new adventure in the newest UEFA competition.

The Roma boss faced the media on Wednesday afternoon ahead of Thursday's Europa Conference League group stage opener against CSKA Sofia.

The game at the Stadio Olimpico gets underway at 21:00 CEST.

Here's what Mourinho had to say about his expectations for the new competition, his thoughts on his side's start to the campaign, and much more besides...

Five wins from five so far. There’s a lot of expectation, you can see that even from the number of tickets being sold for tomorrow’s game – almost 30,000. How can you maintain this level of performance when there is so much pressure on the team?

“Five wins are not 50. Just like I said three wins were not 30. There’s no reason right now to be super-optimistic, to be really positive, to lose our heads. But, that being said, good results are important, they help the process of developing the team.

“The people, the fans are happy I think, but even they need to make sure they keep perspective like we are doing here. Perspective in the sense that they understand that this is a process that we have only been working on for two months. They can sense some changes, yes, and that’s clear in many different ways, but we have to keep calm.

“The fact that the stadium is always as full as it can be is great and perhaps that will have an influence on the authorities, who should realise that there is clearly a real desire from people, not just our fans but everyone in Italy, to get back towards normality. And that normality will be when the whole stadium will be open.

“In order to keep the targets high, this desire to work hard together is one characteristic that we want to ensure we keep. I always tell the players that anything less than 100% is nothing. We need to be perfect in that regard, that’s a non-negotiable to me. Against Sassuolo they could have won the game 2-1 – but even if they had won the game, our spirit and our ambition and the desire we showed is something that can’t change. It’s something we always want to show, even when we lose a game. We are in a construction phase and this is part of what it takes.

“I am sure a question will arrive asking whether I will make changes to the team tomorrow – clearly I will. We will not pick the same team as last weekend. I will make a few changes, but the key thing is we keep the structure in place. Because we need to get a good result. It’s a competition that, step-by-step, we want to do something in. And step-by-step means getting to the end of this group stage and qualifying for the knockout rounds. So if we can start by picking up three points at home, then all the better."

How do you manage a player like Nicolo Zaniolo? Are you trying to manage how you use him? Will he play tomorrow or will Carles Perez?

“The players still don’t know who is playing tomorrow, so I won’t tell you that. If they already knew themselves then I wouldn’t have a problem letting you know, but they still don’t know.

“With Nico, we need to strike the right balance. We don’t want him feeling too much pressure. He’s doing well, his injuries are behind him, those negative feelings are in the past. On Sunday he was a bit tired, clearly. I understand that, when players go away with their national teams … I haven’t managed a national team, but I understand if players don’t play in the games then there isn’t much time around that for training and physical conditioning work. So if a player goes away on international duty and doesn’t play that much, then usually he comes back a bit off his usual condition, a bit behind where he was when he went away.

“That’s something we noted not just with Nico, but with a few other players too. He played 70 minutes on Sunday, he’s recovered well and he’s fit to play tomorrow. I don’t want to talk about his fitness in every press conference. He’s doing fine. Psychologically, it’s important for him to forget the injury. There have been a lot of players who have suffered injuries – but if the injury is behind them you have to look to the future.”

How do you keep those players who haven’t played much so far engaged in things? For example, El Shaarawy has already contributed two goals off the bench … he’s a great example. What about the others? And, on another topic, is potentially become the first coach to win all three UEFA competitions an extra motivation for you?

“With El Shaarawy, and with other players in the same situation, I will just say that the players are smart – they understand, from looking at us, from seeing how we talk with them, from the way we talk, from the feedback we give … they are smart and they understand things without the need for plenty of words. Stephan knows he’s an important player for me, that he’s a starter for me.

“But starters are not just the 11 that actually start, because that can always change. I have never been at a team where the starting line-up at the beginning of the season is exactly the same as the one that finishes the season. The season is not a highway. Maybe at the start it’s a highway, but then it can become country roads. That’s what the season is like, and with players it can be the same.

“For players it’s always hard to start the season and finish it as a starter. So they all need to understand that without all of them we are dead, because you can’t achieve much with just 11 guys. Stephan is smart. He has a lot of experience of the game. He understands how important he is to me.

“I really like his attributes as a player and he knows that. He also understands that from the start of the season he has needed to put the work in to get into the best possible shape. To overcome things – the intensity he lost in China, the injuries he’s had, only coming back here in January. He’s improving a lot. And, beyond that, before the game against Sassuolo we had a chat.

“I told him then that he would start the game against CSKA. I told him then that he is a starter for me, even if he’s been on the bench so far. The players, all of them, are more responsible for creating a united dressing room than I am. Guys that know their different roles, guys that know to respect the coach’s decisions, in those regards we have a group that work well together. I find it very easy to be a leader for this group because it’s a really good group of guys.

“As for your question about the Conference League: I also won, as an assistant coach, a competition that doesn’t exist any more, the Cup Winners’ Cup. I won that with Barcelona in 1997. But I’m not thinking about all that, I don’t target things for the sake of being the first person to do them. We want to do well.

“We are a long, long way from winning this competition, but we want to try to do it. We are at the very first game of the group stage. I don’t want to lie to you guys again. I won’t say I’m not interested in this competition – I am interested in this competition. But the first thing is to make sure we get through the group.

“We are all here and ready for this game. No player will be left at home, no player will be allowed a rest. It’s a collective project. If a few of the guys that played the last game are on the bench for this one, then that happens. They need to help the other guys so that we win the game tomorrow."

(Photo LaPresse)


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