José Mourinho cancelled his press conference before Roma’s match against Inter on Saturday, denying us a window into his emotions as he prepared to face his former club in Serie A for the first time. Eleven years had passed since he left the Nerazzurri in floods of tears, hugging Marco Materazzi before disappearing into a Madrid night after completing an unprecedented Treble win.
He skipped the celebrations in Milan – fearing he could get caught up in a moment and make a commitment that he would regret. Real Madrid were ready to hire him and Mourinho now had his eyes on a different kind of treble, adding a La Liga title to his personal collection after conquering the Premier League and Serie A.
For the next decade, he would profess enduring affection for Inter whenever the opportunity arose. Yet when he took the Roma job this summer, he was quick to throw a few jabs. His former club had just won the league for the first time since he departed. “An isolated success is easy,” reflected Mourinho, “if you win and then don’t have the money to pay the wages.”
His story alone ought to have guaranteed us an engrossing spectacle at the Stadio Olimpico. Before kick-off, travelling Inter fans hung a banner in the Curva Nord swearing Mourinho “eternal gratitude”.
Whatever nostalgia they might hold for that treble-winning side, however, none could have wished that Mourinho was back in their team’s dugout as they watched his current team take the field. Materazzi predicted the match would be “a battle”. Instead, it turned out to be a slaughter.
Inter arrived in confident mood, having closed the gap on Milan and Napoli at the top of the table in recent weeks. They tore into Roma immediately, opening the scoring when Hakan Calhanoglu’s corner snuck in at the near post in the 15th minute.
The Turkey international later confessed that he had been “a bit fortunate”, simply aiming for the near post as usual. There was nothing lucky about Inter’s second goal, arriving at the end of a 19-pass move that culminated with Calhanoglu feeding Edin Dzeko to score after a mesmerising one-touch exchange on the edge of the area.
Denzel Dumfries made it 3-0 to Inter before half-time, heading home at the back post. It was the first time in 21 years of management that a Mourinho side had trailed by such a margin at the interval.
There was no fightback, nor even a hint of one. Roma fell to their seventh defeat of this season – more than they have had at such an early stage in any campaign since 2008-09 – yet it was the total absence of character from their performance that felt most damning of all.
This ought to have been thrilling theatre. Inter are the reigning champions and Roma were supposed to be fighting this season to get back into the top four. Francesco Totti was back at the Stadio Olimpico for only the second time since he retired.
Mourinho’s history at Inter was just one of several juicy subplots. Dzeko declined to celebrate his goal against a club where he scored more than 100 of them. Nicolò Zaniolo, starting up front for Roma, had a point to prove against the club whose academy nurtured him before throwing him too cheaply into a part-exchange deal for Radja Nainggolan.
Yet the most damning indictment of Mourinho might be that a manager with a box-office reputation could not even make a game with all these threads into the most interesting of the night. It was overshadowed thoroughly by a spectacular encounter between Napoli and Atalanta.
Where Mourinho lamented that his team had “no attacking potential” due to the absences of Tammy Abraham and Lorenzo Pellegrini – all while leaving last season’s top scorer, Borja Mayoral, on the bench – Napoli’s Luciano Spalletti surveyed a ruinous injury list and refused to be deterred.
The Partenopei were without Victor Osimhen, André-Frank Zambo Anguissa, Kalidou Koulibaly, Fabián Ruiz and Lorenzo Insigne but their manager concocted a brand new 3-4-3. His idea was to mirror Atalanta, daring his remaining players to show him their quality against opponents whose entire system is founded on a willingness to trust individuals to follow their instincts and embrace the one-on-ones.
That is why Atalanta wind up so often in situations like we saw in the 66th minute, with one centre-back – Rafael Toloi – threading a through-ball down the right channel for another – Merih Demiral – to score emphatically at the near post.
This was a chaotic, spectacular, and joyous game of football, in which momentum see-sawed back and forth. Atalanta were first off the mark when Duván Zapata cut the ball back for Ruslan Malinovskyi to score but Napoli responded with fine goals from Piotr Zielinski and Dries Mertens.
Then came Demiral’s equaliser, before Remo Freuler swept home an Atalanta winner at the end of another all-out attack. In the 71st-minute of a game away to the team that had led the league at the start of the weekend, Atalanta had five players flooding the opposition box.
Even Napoli’s supporters offered an ovation to Gasperini and his team at full time. “Tonight’s game, with even defenders scoring goals and offering assists, that’s my football,” he reflected. “The kind that I always thought I could create, and which Atalanta allow me to realise.”
Napoli could feel optimistic in defeat, Spalletti proving his team can be dynamic and brilliant even without half of their starting XI. They suffered defensively but could have scored more and perhaps would have won were it not for a further injury at 2-1 to Stanislav Lobotka, whose nimble distribution had been an important counter to Atalanta’s high press.
They remain title contenders. Do Atalanta, who finished the weekend four points off first place but seven above fifth, also belong in that conversation?
“This is a narrative people keep on pushing on us – a bit because they believe it and a bit because they want to put pressure on,” said Gasperini. “But there is a reality: we have never been top of the table in these last few years. I will be able to say that we are in the running when we are top at least one time.”
A reasonable argument, and a realistic target for a team who had already won away to Juventus and drawn at Inter this season. Inter look increasingly like favourites, hitting new levels under Simone Inzaghi and boasting greater depth than most rivals, but this race has a long way to run.
Any notion that Mourinho’s Roma could be part of it, though, does seem to be fading. During terse post-game press interviews he responded to a question about his team’s passivity by telling a journalist: “It’s easy to ask questions like this, your job is much easier than ours, and that’s why we get paid a lot more money than you.”
Mourinho is indeed, well remunerated – his €7m net salary placing him alongside Juventus’s Massimiliano Allegri as the best-paid managers in Serie A. Reminding us of that detail may only encourage his critics to ask whether he is offering value for money, with Roma eight points worse off than they were at the corresponding point in the previous campaign.