As the curtain came down on Napoli’s 1-1 draw with Roma, Lorenzo Insigne turned and booted a water bottle back towards his bench. His body language spoke less of rage than resignation. The player’s hopes of leaving his boyhood club with a Serie A title as a parting gift had already dimmed with defeat to Fiorentina in the previous round.
Still, this was a day that could have belonged to him. Insigne’s well-taken penalty put Napoli ahead for 80 minutes. A win would at least have kept them in touching distance of the summit. Instead, someone else had taken hold of the narrative. Not Stephan El Shaarawy, who scored the injury-time equaliser – firing past Alex Meret at the end of a scintillating move, in which nine Roma players touched the ball and the last five only once each – but an inevitable José Mourinho.
The manager had made headlines before kick-off, when he went to lay flowers at the shrine to Diego Maradona in Naples’s Spanish Quarter. Mourinho has spoken before about their friendship, telling BT Sport how the Argentinian used to call him after defeats but never wins.
Their conversations would have been few, if Maradona were still with us, in 2022. Mourinho’s Roma have lost only twice since 9 January and one of those hardly counts – a 2-1 defeat in the first-leg of their Europa Conference League quarter- final with Bodo Glimt, overturned by a 4-0 victory in Thursday’s return. They are unbeaten in 12 Serie A matches, the longest ongoing run in the division.
At the start of the year, questions were being asked about what Mourinho had done to justify Roma’s decision to hire him and pay him the joint-best salary in the league. His team were 11 points worse off than at the corresponding stage last season. Despite a summer transfer spend of more than €100m, Mourinho responded to a 6-1 thrashing by Bodo Glimt in the Conference League group stage by saying he had only “12 or 13” players worthy of the team.
The last three months have turned the story on its head, Roma improving so drastically as to give themselves an outside shot at a Champions League spot. A win over Napoli on Sunday would have pulled them to within three points of Juventus in fourth.
Mourinho has adapted his tactics, showing greater willingness to press opponents high and play on the front foot. He has made changes to how individual players are used, notably bringing Nicolò Zaniolo in from the wing to operate more often as a second striker behind Tammy Abraham – even if there had still been media laments about the Italian’s lack of playing time before a hat- trick in Thursday’s win over Bodo Glimt.
Most of all, though, Mourinho’s greatest success might have been to achieve something that eluded him in recent stints at Manchester United and Tottenham: persuading players to buy in. Roma’s defining trait over the last three-and-a-half months has not been dazzling football – though there have been flashes of that – but simply a refusal to quit.
El Shaarawy’s strike was the Giallorossi’s seventh injury-time goal of this season and their 15th inside the last quarter-hour of a game. Against last-placed Salernitana in their previous league game, they trailed until the 82nd minute before recovering to win. Lorenzo Pellegrini’s equaliser against Udinese last month arrived in the 93rd. Abraham earned a win over Spezia with a penalty in the 98th.
That tenacity was in evidence again as they fought to stay in Sunday’s game despite a rocky start. Napoli looked far sharper in the opening exchanges, Mario Rui overlapping effectively with Insigne down the left and Hirving Lozano carving through the lines on the right. It was the Mexican who won the penalty with a run beyond Ibañez, who caught his heel in a rush to recover.
Yet Roma gave up a few clear-cut chances beyond that, and might have had goals of their own on the counter if Zaniolo had shown just a little more clarity of thought – holding the ball when he should have squared it for Abraham and looking for a pass when he appeared to have a chance to go beyond wrong-footed defenders on his own.
Through the second half, Roma only got stronger. Abraham should have equalized but made a poor connection on a close-range header. Napoli invited them on, Luciano Spalletti withdrawing first Lozano and Fabián Ruiz, then Insigne and Victor Osimhen. El Shaarawy’s goal arrived late, but it felt more than deserved.
Mourinho’s praise for his players at full-time was embedded into an extended lament about perceived refereeing injustice. His argument that the Napoli full-back Alessandro Zanoli could have been sent off for a pair of reckless challenges felt justified. The claim that Roma should have had a penalty when Zaniolo collided with Meret was more ambiguous. The keeper made an excellent save in the first instance but then collided with the striker, who perhaps could have reached the ball otherwise.
“It seemed impossible to me to leave here with a positive result, even though my team did not just play well but extremely well,” said Mourinho. “After Thursday’s game, and against a great team like Napoli, this match seemed like Everest, but we had quality, character, physical and mental conditioning that were absolutely incredible. We wanted more, but it was impossible. In football both teams have the right to play to win matches, whether they are fighting for the Scudetto, fifth place or to avoid relegation. This time they took that right away from us.”
Opinions will differ on individual decisions but might also be beside the point. Mourinho was leaning into his players’ sense of injustice, just as he has at previous clubs, to bond them together, selling them a story about ‘us against the world’.
That approach has been enthusiastically received in Rome from the start. Mourinho was popular with fans even before the results started to turn in his team’s favour. A surge up the table and a push to the semi-final of a European competition – even if not the most glamorous one – is welcomed as vindication by those who believed from the start.
On Saturday Roma go away to Inter, the team with whom Mourinho won the Treble in 2010 and who now sit second in the table – two points behind their neighbors Milan with a game in hand. He may not be in the running for a Scudetto of his own, but once again the Portuguese finds himself holding a quill as the final chapter of a Serie A season is committed to the page.