Concluding a memorable first season for the Europa Conference League, Roma and final opponents Feyenoord convene in Tirana on Wednesday night, as they battle it out for a place in history.
While the Italian club are seeking their first victory in a UEFA final, having twice lost previously, their Dutch counterparts could become the first team to have lifted all three of Europe’s current club trophies.
Although winners of the long defunct Inter-Cities Fairs Cup back in 1961, Roma are still waiting to claim their first-ever major European prize, after losing to Liverpool in the 1984 European Cup final and fellow Serie A side Inter in the UEFA Cup seven years later.
While both competitions have since been revamped and form the top two tiers of continental competition – the Champions and Europa Leagues – UEFA’s newest addition to their stable, the Conference League, was inaugurated less than 12 months ago.
After wending its way through the outposts of Europe since getting under way last summer, the tournament’s path leads ultimately to Wednesday’s grand finale, which will be played out in the Albanian capital.
Roma arrive in Tirana having finished with a flourish domestically, as their league season concluded with a 3-0 win at Torino last Friday, with a Tammy Abraham brace and Lorenzo Pellegrini’s penalty securing Europa League football for next season, whether or not they triumph this week.
The free pass to that competition which comes with the Conference League crown will not be required, as the Giallorossi secured a top-six finish in the Serie A standings; just one point behind capital city rivals Lazio.
Over the intervening days, coach Jose Mourinho has been preparing his squad for their coming appearance on the European stage, and so far this season, his side have largely thrived at the lower level.
After comfortably cruising through to the last 16 – despite a shock 6-1 drubbing in the Arctic Circle, at the hands of Norwegian champions Bodo/Glimt – Roma then edged past Vitesse at the first knockout stage, before reconvening with their group stage conquerors in the quarter-finals.
Though they suffered another defeat in the away leg, Bodo/Glimt were eventually brushed aside at Stadio Olimpico, before Mourinho’s men overcame Leicester City in the semi-finals: drawing 1-1 away and winning 1-0 at home.
Like Wednesday’s opponents, Europe’s newest club trophy is now Roma’s only chance of silverware this season, and Mourinho has extra motivation to urge his team, spearheaded by Abraham up front and captained by the inspirational Pellegrini, to finish the job against Feyenoord.
The veteran coach would be acclaimed for winning four European competitions with four different clubs – the first one being the 1997 Cup Winners’ Cup, as assistant to the late Bobby Robson at Barcelona – and having won both the Champions League and UEFA Cup/Europa League twice since, he now has the chance to clinch yet another club competition trophy.
Feyenoord booked their place in the inaugural final after a monumental semi-final tussle with Marseille, and are now aiming to complete four wins from as many European finals – their previous three having seen them bring a trophy back home to Rotterdam.
Victories in the 1970 European Cup final against Celtic and the UEFA Cups of 1974 and 2002 established the Dutch club’s reputation as a name to be revered in continental competition – even if they have been far less feared in recent times.
Leading De Stadionclub to the Conference League final in his first campaign at De Kuip, coach Arne Slot has brought back a taste of past glories, having made a big impression by fielding a side full of energy, intensity and plenty of goals.
Slot’s attack-minded team threw away a two-goal lead at home to Marseille in the semis, but then recovered to take a slender 3-2 lead to Stade Velodrome for the second leg, which ultimately finished goalless.
In even more impressive fashion than their final opponents, Feyenoord had already swept through the group stage – in their case, unbeaten – and saw off both Partizan Belgrade and Slavia Prague on their route to the final four.
Undefeated since the start of the tournament, the Eredivisie club have found the net 28 times in their 12 Conference League games to date – one more than Roma. They also boast the competition’s leading goalscorer, with Cyriel Dessers having racked up ten goals so far, which is one more than the Giallorossi’s main man, Abraham.
Since sealing their place in the final, Feyenoord have gone on to secure a third-placed finish domestically, despite a final-day defeat to Twente, when their thoughts may have understandably drifted elsewhere.
That setback halted an 11-game unbeaten run in all competitions, but the 15-times Dutch champions are a force to be reckoned with under Slot, whose philosophy contrasts starkly with the pure pragmatism of Mourinho.
Roma Europa Conference League form:
Roma form (all competitions):
Feyenoord Europa Conference League form:
Feyenoord form (all competitions):
We say: Roma 2-1 Feyenoord (after extra time)
Though Feyenoord have excelled in Europe this term, the greater experience and mastery of game management available to Roma should help them take an elusive trophy back to the Eternal City at long last.
Under Mourinho, the Giallorossi can be resolute when required and have become notorious for their ability to steal late goals. Such never-say-die spirit may well be needed to see off the challenge of a fearless Feyenoord side.