When Jose Mourinho has something to say, it’s usually important. Over the years we’ve been accustomed to hearing his brags and boasts about the trophies he’s won in bullish press conferences, but this week he struck a different tone.
The Tottenham boss instead made a promise. In an Instragram post holding three Europa League-branded footballs, he said they represented ‘the two titles I have in the pocket and the third I am ready to fight for’.
Not many managers have won the Champions League twice. No manager has won two Champions Leagues and two Europa Leagues – except for Mourinho. He usually delivers, but in this competition – he always does.
Jose Mourinho is eyeing up his third Europa League trophy to end Tottenham’s trophy drought
His record in the second-tier competition is impressive with two wins from just two attempts
‘My record is good,’ he said about the Europa League earlier this summer. ‘I played the competition twice, I got to the final twice, I won twice. In the Europa League I was never knocked out.’
Two attempts, two wins is pretty impressive given the 57-year-old has spent most of his managerial career on the biggest stage – the Champions League – 17 seasons, to be precise.
There has never been more pressure on a Spurs boss to win a trophy, especially after a succession of agonising near-misses. The Europa League presents Mourinho with his best chance of ending that drought. They are the joint-favourites with the bookies alongside Arsenal to win it – and it’s a competition that holds a special significance for the Portuguese boss.
It was the first European trophy he won as a manager with Porto and, crucially, the last trophy he won as a manager at Manchester United.
After a string of near-misses, there has never been more pressure to win a trophy at Spurs
Scenes of him celebrating Tottenham’s 1-1 draw against Crystal Palace on the final day of the 2019-20 season – the point which secured a place in the competition – looked embarrassing on the surface. But you get a sense he might have been celebrating a future triumph.
It’s unlikely you would have seen the same reaction had you told him at the time that Spurs’ bitter rivals would force them into playing three qualifying rounds at the start of the season.
But having navigated past the banana skins of Lokomotiv Plovdiv, KF Shkendija and Maccabi Haifa, being drawn in a relatively routine Group J will help him sleep a little sounder.
Mourinho was ridiculed for celebrating a 1-1 draw with Palace last season, but he may have been looking towards the future
Having navigated three tricky qualifying rounds, he can look ahead to easier group stage tests
Tottenham are the joint-favourites to win it with Harry Kane and Son Heung-min in top form
Spurs dodged a few bullets by being placed alongside LASK, Antwerp and Ludogorets – who won’t be walkovers by any means – but being seeded means they’ll avoid the big guns of Roma, Benfica and Napoli until the business end of the tournament, should they get there.
So he’ll more than fancy his chances, and not just because Spurs have arguably one of the best squad they’ve ever had, but because he knows how to win it.
Back in the 2002-03 season, when the formerly known UEFA Cup was a straight knockout tournament, his Porto side pretty much breezed through. He suffered two defeats early on – narrow losses in second legs against Polonia Warsaw and Lens after racking up a comfortable lead in the first.
A scare arrived later on against Panathinaikos in the quarter-finals, when his team were beaten 1-0 in the first leg before rescuing a 2-0 comeback to reach the semi-finals. They made light work of Lazio, winning 4-1 on aggregate, before an extra time win over Celtic in the final.
His Porto side cruised through the tournament before beating Celtic in the 2003 final
MOURINHO’S EUROPA LEAGUE RECORD
Benfica – 2000-01
Porto – 2002-03
P13 W8 D3 L3
WINNERS (Beat Celtic 3-2)
Manchester United – 2016-17
P15 W10 D3 L2
WINNERS (Beat Ajax 2-0)
Tottenham – 2020-21
With United, all didn’t go swimmingly straight away. Two group stage defeats to Feyenoord and Fenerbache caused concern, and it cost them as they could only finish second in Group A.
But luckily for Mourinho, they were drawn to face a more forgiving challenge in the knockouts against Group C winners Saint Etienne, who they brushed aside 4-0 on aggregate.
As they moved through the knockouts, more nervy wins by a one-goal margin came against Rostov, Anderlecht and Celta Vigo, but all with the same message – getting the job done.
And a job was certainly done in the final against Ajax. United had just finished sixth and Mourinho knew this was his only ticket to the big time – Champions League or bust.
The Dutch side were seen as a menacing young side with a call-back to the club’s famous brand of Total Football, but Mourinho had other ideas.
Two shots on target from United and 2-0 on the night after a tactical masterclass saw them bully and frustrate Ajax, not allowing them to get into their groove.
‘We gave them the game that they didn’t want to have,’ he reflected last year.
A tactical masterclass saw his Man United side brush aside a talented Ajax team in 2017
The Portuguese boss bragged how his side gave Ajax ‘they game they didn’t want to play’
‘They complained [after the game] about the long build-up, they complained about [Marouane] Fellaini, about physicality, they complained because they couldn’t cope.’
As he seeks a three-peat this year, he’ll be aware of the need to keep changing the culture at Spurs. He has told his players they are ‘too nice’ and that ‘good guys never win’ in their Amazon documentary, and indeed his famous trophy-winning sides are proof of that.
Since Tottenham’s last piece of silverware in 2008, the club have actually only competed in two finals. The 2014 League Cup showpiece against Chelsea – managed by the man who now sits in their dugout – and the 2019 Champions League defeat to Liverpool in Madrid.
Mourinho has the chance to succeed where Mauricio Pochettino (L) failed and deliver a trophy
His Spurs team must adopt Mourinho’s mentality of winning ugly to end their 12-year drought
Both came by scorelines of 2-0 and managed by Mauricio Pochettino, a man who brought so much flair and consistency to the club but failing to get them over the line in the games that mattered.
The Argentine’s sacking left a bitter taste for adoring Spurs fans who hailed him as ‘magic’ – the only tonic that his replacement was a proven winner with one of the best trophy success records in the game.
Competitions like these are exactly what Jose Mourinho was hired for.