In the 91st minute of his 1,000th game as a professional football manager, José Mourinho turned and started running. His fist was raised, and his mouth was open as he careened down the sideline at the Stadio Olimpico, chasing after his players as they piled in to celebrate in front of the Curva Sud.
Mourinho had spent the whole week downplaying Roma’s match against Sassuolo: just another game, only his third back in Serie A since taking charge of the Giallorossi. At his pre-match press conference, he insisted that this was not a time to worry too much about wins and losses, saying that the league table was something you might start to look at from January onwards.
“I was lying,” he confessed on Sunday. “Even to myself when I said that this was not a special game. It was. A truly special number for me and I will remember it to the last day of my life. I had a tremendous fear that I would live for ever with the memory of a defeat on the day of my 1,000th game on the bench. I lied to everyone about that.”
Perhaps he would have kept on fibbing were it not for Stephan El Shaarawy. The forward entered the game as a 70th-minute substitute, joining a helter-skelter final act. The sides were level at 1-1, Bryan Cristante stealing a first-half lead for the hosts from a well-worked free-kick before Filip Djuricic equalised close to the hour mark. Instead of settling for the draw, both teams went for the jugular.
Tammy Abraham hit the post for Roma, before Lorenzo Pellegrini weaved between three defenders and fired over. At the other end, Rui Patrício produced a pair of sensational one-on-one saves, stretching out a toe to block Domenico Berardi’s shot before making himself big again to thwart Jérémie Boga. Hamed Traorè struck the woodwork for Sassuolo as well.
Those were only the best chances. There were more than any reporter could hope to keep up with during that frantic last half-hour, the action rattling up and down the pitch like a pinball machine. Mourinho said afterwards: “It could have finished 6-6, or 7-7, or Sassuolo could have won 2-1.”
Instead, El Shaarawy delivered victory to Roma with a magnificent half-volley, curled in off the far post after Eldor Shomurodov brought the ball down inside the Sassuolo box. It was a beautiful moment for a forward whose career has drifted off course since an ill-fated move to Shanghai Shenhua in 2019. El Shaarawy is still only 28 years old, with 29 caps for Italy, but had struggled to make an impact after returning to Rome in January.
It was Mourinho, though, who stole the scene, TV cameras tracking immediately to the Special One as he embarked on yet another Special Run. The next day’s papers were packed with reminiscences of celebrations past – from Old Trafford with Porto to the Camp Nou with Internazionale, and his charge to hug a shirtless Maicon after the Brazilian scored two in 2008 against Siena.
This is the vision of Mourinho that has endured in Italy, a serial champion and headline-maker who makes it worth your while to tune in. It is a reputation that can seem impossible to square with the grim football and fractious atmosphere that have characterised his recent chapters in England.
It is too soon to say whether he has turned over a new leaf, or to know whether he will be a success at Roma. In his last stop, at Tottenham, an encouraging start did not last. All we can observe for now is that, between Serie A and the Europa Conference League, Mourinho’s side have won five out of five. They sit top of the standings – even if he isn’t checking – alongside Milan and Napoli.
They have spent money to get there – close to €100m on transfer fees alone in the most recent summer transfer window. Several new signings played lead roles against Sassuolo, from Patrício in goal to Abraham up front, the Englishman leading the line with confidence and winning the free-kick that led to Roma’s opening goal. Shomurodov had come close to scoring even before he provided the assist for El Shaarawy’s winner.
Mourinho was nevertheless quick to assert that his team lacked the resources of the division’s top sides. The last player to enter Sunday’s game for Roma was the 20-year-old American Bryan Reynolds, making his Serie A debut. His manager contrasted that move with Inter’s ability to bring Denzel Dumfries – signed from PSV with Champions League experience – off the bench in their draw at Sampdoria.
It was a familiar gambit, Mourinho positioning his team as the underdog, selling the story that any success they might achieve would represent a triumph over the odds. The reality was the opposite on Sunday, Sassuolo threatening to topple Roma despite a wage budget one-third the size.
If the result had gone the other way – as Mourinho acknowledged it could easily have done – then the story here would have been about how Alessio Dionisi, coaching in Serie A for the first time, was working miracles with a team that waved farewell to Manuel Locatelli in the summer. Berardi was making a first appearance of the season after being linked heavily with a move away.
Sassuolo remain an intriguing team to keep an eye on, for the transition from Roberto De Zerbi to Dionisi and for the little-and-large alternatives of young Italian talent up front. The 5ft 8in Giacomo Raspadori started here after scoring his first goal for the Azzurri in midweek, but the 6ft 5in Gianluca Scamacca also impressed with a very different skillset off the bench.
Their moment in the spotlight will come. On Sunday though, it belonged to Mourinho. “I was not 58 years old [when running down the sideline] but 10, or 12, or 14 at most,” said the Roma manager. “The age when you start to dream about a career in football.”
Roma’s supporters were right there with him, pouring down the stands to get as close as they could. It is too soon to think about trophies, and yet the dream of winning something – anything – is present in the minds of a fanbase who have not seen their team claim any major piece of silverware since the Coppa Italia in 2008.
For the club’s owners, after such heavy investment, the priority will be to get back into the top four, something Roma have failed to do now for three consecutive seasons. But after 18 months of empty stadiums, it was enough, for many, simply to revel in the joy of a 91st-minute winner, and the mad dash it inspired in a 58-year-old boy.
Talking points will appear in the comments section shortly. Nicky also has a new podcast about Italian football launching this week – Serie A Chronicles.