When the full-time whistle rang out around the BayArena in Leverkusen on 18 May, an emotional José Mourinho opted not to celebrate with his players but instead made his way onto the pitch and pumped his fists in the direction of the travelling AS Roma supporters.
It was a brief chance for both parties to celebrate Roma’s achievement, not just on the night but since Mourinho arrived at the club.
Before Mourinho, I Lupi hadn’t been to a European final since 1991 and two weeks ago they booked their place in their second in the space of a year.
Across the 98 minutes, Roma faced 23 shots, six shots on target and needed the woodwork to rescue them, but as always with Mourinho in the dugout, there was an overriding sense of inevitability that Roma would advance to the final. The Portuguese coach is now into his sixth European final and he is still yet to taste defeat in one.
Here, we look at The Special One’s immaculate record in European finals and what sets his teams apart in the biggest moments.
Why is José Mourinho so Successful in Finals?
2002-03 UEFA Cup: Celtic 2-3 FC Porto (AET)
2003-04 UEFA Champions League: AS Monaco 0-3 FC Porto
2009-10 UEFA Champions League: Bayern Munich 0-2 Inter
2016-17 UEFA Europa League: Ajax 0-2 Manchester United
2021-22 UEFA Europa Conference League: AS Roma 1-0 Feyenoord
Sir Alex Ferguson famously stated that “attack wins games, defence wins titles,” and when it comes to Mourinho’s record in European finals, the latter part of this statement rings true.
Since conceding two Henrik Larsson goals in 2003, Mourinho’s sides have kept a clean sheet in every UEFA final since. That makes it two Champions League finals, a Europa League final and a Europa Conference League final, all without conceding a single goal. Overall, it’s 423 minutes since a Mourinho-led side conceded a goal in a European final.
Of course, the first part of Ferguson’s statement is also true and given a final is a one-off match where anything can happen, teams often need a bit of magic in forward areas to see them over the line. But for Mourinho the main principle is if you can keep the opposition out, you give yourself a huge chance of guaranteeing success.
Costinha, the midfield anchor who won both the UEFA Cup and Champions League under Mourinho, told the Scottish FA Podcast that the Portuguese coach, “brought a different type of mentality to Porto and to the world’ adding that, ‘every day he asked for more and more and more…you become like a rolling machine. You don’t feel the pressure, you just want to deliver”.
Mourinho’s teams are happy to concede possession in finals, the players trust in each other and in their own defensive abilities and due to Mourinho’s rigorous work on the training pitch, the players are prepared and confident in knowing where to allow the opposition to have the ball without risk.
Against Monaco in Mourinho’s first Champions League final, Porto had 45% possession, fewer shots and fewer corners than their opponents, yet Monaco failed to register a single shot on target in 90 minutes and Porto ran out 3-0 winners.
In 2010, the differences were even more stark, Bayern Munich had 68% of the ball and managed 21 shots but as the game went on, the German side grew more and more frustrated and started to take on potshots from distance and resorted to firing crosses into the box which Inter dealt with.
In Mourinho’s most recent final – Roma’s UEFA Europa Conference League victory over Feyenoord last season – the Dutch side had 67% possession but because playing through Roma failed to yield results, they fired in 24 crosses yet only completed three.
Mourinho prepares his teams to be ‘under the cosh’, to be ready to put their body on the line, to be calm under pressure and to do what it takes to end the night with a winner’s medal around their neck.
Some teams go into a final looking to win it, Mourinho’s teams play making sure they don’t lose.
Mourinho’s European Titles
Celtic 2-3 Porto: UEFA Cup Final, 21 May 2003
In January 2002 and with Porto languishing in fifth place in the Primeira Liga table, Octávio Machado was given his marching orders and a young, charismatic Mourinho took over a side in dire need of inspiration and direction. He steadied the ship and guided Porto to a third-place finish, enough to grant them a place in the UEFA Cup the following season.
2002-03 was José Mourinho’s first full campaign in charge of Porto and the season he first tasted glory on the European stage.
It is a UEFA Cup final that is fondly remembered by Porto supporters and a match which still irks Celtic fans two decades later due to FC Porto’s perceived use of the dark arts. Paulo Ferreira, Porto’s right-back on the night, said in an interview a couple of years later, “It’s the way we play. You go down and we didn’t care what Celtic said afterwards. If you won the UEFA Cup final, would you say that? If you lose it’s different.” It was a revealing response which gave a window into the win-at-all-costs mentality that Mourinho had instilled into the players at Porto.
The game saw four goals in quick succession, Derlei opened the scoring on the brink of half-time but just two minutes into the second period Henrik Larsson had equalised. Dmitri Alenichev restored Porto’s lead just seven minutes later, but Larsson was once again on hand to score an equalise just a couple of minutes later.
The match then settled back down into a cagey affair and the Celtic supporters felt Porto’s players were going down too easily and started to chant, ‘cheats, cheats, cheats’ from the stands in Seville. Extra time kicked off and in the second period Derlei was on hand to score his second of the game and Mourinho’s side were crowned champions.
Porto 3-0 Monaco: Champions League, 27 May 2004
Buoyed by their success in the UEFA Cup the previous season, Mourinho set his sights on club football’s biggest prize, the Champions League. This confidence and belief surging through the Porto side increased tenfold when they dramatically knocked out Manchester United against the odds in the first knockout round. Further knockout stage victories against Lyon and Deportivo la Coruña unexpectedly sent Porto into the 2004 Champions League final where they faced fellow underdogs AS Monaco.
Mourinho went with his trusted 4-1-2-1-2 formation, opting for the same back four that he used against Celtic the season prior. Ricardo Carvalho and Jorge Costa provided strength and steel at the back and Deco, elected the UEFA Man of the Match, ran the show in attacking areas, sprinkling his magic for 90 minutes as Porto ran out 3-0 winners.
This match was the first time a Mourinho side kept a clean sheet in a European final and it’s something his teams have done every single match since with the last goal a Mourinho side conceded in a final coming against Celtic 20 years ago.
Bayern Munich 0-2 Inter Milan: Champions League, 22 May 2010
In his second season at the helm, Mourinho led Inter Milan into the Champions League final for the first time since 1972.
After securing the Serie A title on the final day of the season and the Coppa Italia at the beginning of May, the Champions League was the final piece of the puzzle as Inter sought to become the first Italian club to win a continental treble.
Inter played largely on the counter, defending deep and soaking up pressure before springing forward to hurt their German opponents on the break. Júlio Cesar played a long punt up the field which Diego Milito was able to cushion into the path of Wesley Sneijder. The Dutchman returned the ball back to Milito who was able to smash it home to make it 1-0.
Bayern pushed players up the other end as they sought an equaliser and Mourinho’s side were able to catch them out for their second of the game. Samuel Eto’o spread the ball out to Milito to make it a three-vs-two situation, but the Argentine didn’t require help; twisting Daniel Van Buyten inside out before curling his effort into the back of the net.
Milito, the hero of the final, later revealed in a 2020 interview that Mourinho’s presence was a calming one in the hours before the final:
“He really calmed us. He was our leader. He knew of the importance of transmitting calm in those moments of tension.”
Ajax 0-2 Manchester United: Europa League, 24 May 2017
José Mourinho arrived at Old Trafford looking to add major trophies to a cabinet that had only been topped up once in the post-Alex Ferguson era (Louis van Gaal’s FA Cup).
In his first season at Man Utd, Mourinho could only lead the club to sixth in the Premier League but won both the EFL Cup and the UEFA Europa League, the latter being Manchester United’s first European trophy since 2008 and the first time they had won the competition in their history. An additional bonus in United’s success meant they also secured a spot in the UEFA Champions League the following season.
United squared off against Peter Bosz’s Ajax in the final and once again Mourinho was happy to concede possession. United had just 33% of the ball but a goal in each half from Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan earned United what felt a rather routine 2-0 win.
Ajax’s starting XI had an average age of just 22 years, 282 days whereas the English side had an average age of 27y 188d and this added experience told on the field with the Dutch giants unable to really threaten a United team that held firm throughout to frustrate them.
Twelve of Ajax’s 17 shots came from outside of the box, seven of their shots were blocked and only three of their shots found their way on target.
Roma 1-0 Feyenoord: Europa Conference League, 25 May 2022
When Mourinho’s Roma lifted the inaugural UEFA Europa Conference League, they became the first Italian club to win a UEFA competition since Mourinho’s Inter. It was also a special achievement for the Portuguese because it meant he had become the first manager to win all three of UEFA’s current competitions.
Nicolò Zaniolo scored in the 32nd minute for Roma and from that point onwards the match became an uphill battle for their Dutch opponents. After all, they had to try and do what no team had done in a European final since Celtic in 2003: score against a Mourinho-led team.
Arne Slot’s side pushed forward but Roma defended stoutly and lent on the woodwork a couple of times to keep their clean sheet intact. Chris Smalling was given the UEFA Man of the Match award, but in truth it could have gone to any of Roma’s backline, including goalkeeper Rui Patrício who made five saves.
Mourinho was moved to tears in the aftermath of the match, showing that despite his plethora of success, a win in UEFA’s tertiary competition meant as much as any other victory.
“I am very emotional. This for us is our Champions League…When you work in Rome, live in Rome and breathe Rome, you breathe this club because it is the real club of the city. I felt from day one it is huge, but no victories and not many finals. The history is not related to the social dimension of the club.”
The 2022-23 Europa League Final
On 31 May in Budapest, the unstoppable force will meet the immovable object. Mourinho, unbeaten in UEFA finals, is up against Sevilla, the undisputed kings of the UEFA Europa League – a club who have won all six of their finals in this competition (including the UEFA Cup).
While the Spaniards may have stuttered in La Liga this season, the Europa League has seen them as their ruthless best.
José Luis Mendilibar’s side dropped into the competition from the Champions League and dusted themselves down before eliminating PSV Eindhoven in the play-off round and Fenerbahçe in the round of 16.
In the first leg of their quarter-final against Man Utd, Sevilla found themselves 2-0 down inside 21 minutes of the tie and you could have been forgiven for thinking that their magic in the Europa League was starting to run dry. That was until they forced two quick-fire own goals in the last 10 minutes to set up a thriller at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán.
In the second leg, Sevilla had just 38% possession but managed 20 shots, six shots on target and scored three goals with no reply, limited the Premier League club to an xG total of just 0.9 and dumped them out of the competition.
In the semi-final against Juventus, it was Erik Lamela who came to the rescue for Sevilla, scoring in the first half of extra time to win the tie 3-2 on aggregate following two 1-1 draws in normal time in Torino and Seville.
Roma entered the UEFA Europa League from the group stage, finishing second in Group C and thus having to play a knockout playoff against a Red Bull Salzburg side who had finished third in their Champions League group behind Chelsea and Milan. A 2-0 win at the Stadio Olimpico was enough to overturn a 1-0 first-leg defeat suffered in Austria.
Wins against Real Sociedad and Feyenoord followed in the round of 16 and quarter-finals set up a semi-final clash against Bayer Leverkusen and Mourinho’s former pupil Xabi Alonso.
Roma took a slender 1-0 advantage into the second leg in Germany knowing they would likely have to put in a backs-to-the-wall performance against a Leverkusen side who would strive to control proceedings. The second leg was the perfect execution of Mourinho-ball, Leverkusen had 72% possession, 23 shots and five corners but they simply could not find a way to breach the impenetrable Roman defence. Roma ended the match with one shot and without registering a single shot on target but the most important thing for Mourinho is that it is his side who reached the final.
Should Roma lift the trophy this season, Mourinho will become the most decorated manager in the history of major European competition, going clear of Giovanni Trapattoni (five). There’s little doubt that he’s finished there, either.