THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES

Vintage Conference

With ten minutes left in the Europa Conference League final, with Roma defending a 1-0 lead on the edge of their penalty area, something clicked. It became clear that whatever happened from this point would be classic José Mourinho. Hold on for the win? There you go, you see: get the goal, give the other lot the ball, let them make the mistakes.
UEFA Europa Conference League
Mourinho celebrates Roma triumph: 'We made history'
25/05/2022 AT 22:04
And if Feyenoord had scored, and rolled on for the win as they surely would, then we could all have shaken our heads and tutted our tuts. 'Just like at Spurs,' we'd have said. 'It just doesn't work any more.' Perhaps this is Mourinho's final and ultimate victory: he owns both sides of the narrative. Whatever happens, it's about him. That's showbusiness.
Going back to the match, there were some players there too. Three stood out in particular: first Nicolò Zaniolo, who made the only goal with a glorious piece of shoulder-control and then poked it home just before the defence swallowed him up. Coming back to score in a final after snapping your ACL would be a good story. Managing that after snapping both, one then the other, all by the age of 22? That's a player with a fine career to be getting on with.
Then Tammy Abraham. He didn't get a goal - he didn't really get a sniff of a goal - and yet he should by rights have ended the game as the most important player on the pitch. But Marcos Senesi's tug on his arm went unpunished, and so Abraham learned an important lesson about honesty. It doesn't pay. And VAR isn't going to save you either. Chuck yourself on the ground.
The lack of goal and lack of reward aside, Abraham was generally excellent. Being the lone striker on the edge of a defensive shutdown usually a thankless one and can be a miserable one. It's easy for a striker to just disappear. But Abraham kept running and scampering and bothering the defenders: holding the ball up, taking the tackle, buying his team time to reset for the next round of blocking. Last month, Abraham called Mourinho the perfect manager. You suspect the feeling is mutual.
And speaking of blocking, consider Chris Smalling. Much of BT Sport's pre-match build-up focused on Feyenoord's Cyriel Dessers, the sharp point of their considerable goal threat. And Smalling sat on him. Smalling lay down in front of him. Smalling spent ninety long minutes following him around saying 'Nope. Nope. Nope.' Often we characterise great defensive performances as brave, even heroic, but in truth defending is the art of being as irritating as possible. And Smalling was magnificently irritating.

Smalling - 'Tonight is for Rome' as he praises UECL title triumph over Feyenoord

It all went to plan. 45 minutes of decent football to earn the goal; 45 minutes of outrageous suffering to earn the clean sheet. And at the end, Mourinho stuck five fingers up, one for each of his victorious finals, because of course he did. He is big. It's the cups that got small.
That's probably a little unfair. A trophy matters precisely as much as all the competitors believe it does, and Roma seemed to think their first European trophy mattered quite a lot, thank you very much. If the point of the Conference League was to get a trophy into the hands of a team from outside Europe's strongest leagues, then it hasn't quite worked. But if it was an attempt to spread the European adventure around a bit, then job more or less done. Roma may have won the thing, but they had to get hammered by Bodø/Glimt first. There are worse ways for a tournament to arrive.

One More Year

Relax, Liverpool fans! Not about the Champions League final, that's still going to be terrifying. But Mo Salah is here with some good news: he is "staying next season for sure."
A new deal? Look, now's not the time to talk about that. Don't you know there's a final coming up?
In a sense, Salah is a victim of circumstance. If he'd been doing Salah things just five years ago, either Real Madrid or Barcelona would have thrown a hundred million euros at Liverpool without even stopping to think about it. Then another hundred million, just to beat the other lot. But that was then and this is now, and the really big chequebooks have been placed behind glass, to be broken out only in the direst emergency.
Accordingly, the expiring contract is the latest must-have accessory for the superstar footballer. And it makes sense: it moves all the power over to their side of the table. Maybe it will nudge their current club into an offer they can't refuse. Or maybe the club of their dreams will be spurred into action by the lack of a transfer fee. Everyone's a winner.

Liverpool's Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Salah smiles during a press conference at their training ground in Liverpool, northwest England, on May 25, 2022, ahead of their UEFA Champions League final football match against Real Madrid on May 28. (Photo by Pa

Image credit: Getty Images

The poster child for this movement is, of course, Kylian Mbappé, who placed himself halfway between Paris and Madrid and invited offers. Note that his new deal is three years, down from the usual five or ultra-enthusiastic six. Another decision will be round again shortly, and either Madrid will get their man - a notionally free transfer underpinned by massive wages - or PSG will have to find some way of giving him the Eiffel Tower.
Noted soothsayer Arsène Wenger called it back in 2017, as Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez ran down their deals at Arsenal. "The transfers are so high, even for normal players. You will see more and more players going into the final year of the contract because no club will want to pay the amount demanded ... in the next 10 years, it will become usual." If shorter contracts become the norm as well, then the dynamics of the transfer market really will start to shift.
As for Salah, he'll be 30 by the time next summer rolls around. For Liverpool, that might soften the blow of losing him. But on Saturday he'll take the field against Karim Benzema, who has just put together one of the best seasons of his career at the impossibly ancient age of 34. Longer careers and shorter contracts? A good time to be a good footballer. Probably a great time to be an agent.

IN OTHER NEWS

You get them all the time, these little clips of the trophy being engraved with name of the winning team. But quite rare for it to be the first name. We've always found these moments strangely relaxing: while the rest of the stadium is convulsing with joy or collapsing in agony, here's one person, with the special tools for their special job, getting things done calmly and precisely. And the wait for somebody to carve the wrong name continues.

RETRO CORNER

Before you press play on this video, which follows Mourinho's Porto all the way to victory in the 2004 Champions League, see if you can remember the result and the opponent from their first game of the group stage. Such humble beginnings for such mighty glories.

HAT TIP

Over to the Athletic for this very interesting, moderately depressing multivocal interview, which digs into the process by which the European Cup became the Champions League. If you're thinking 'probably that fruitful intersection between very rich people and television,' then you're not far off. Here, for example, is advertising executive Alex Fynn praising UEFA for their nous:
"Hats off to UEFA, they got out of the way and left it up to the sports marketeers, who realised that to create something you needed centralised control […] Football is both a live event and a television spectacular. Your audience for the former is in the thousands but the audience for the latter is in the millions. You need a stadium full of people, but a TV offer that’s clean, flexible and high-quality."
And here's Fynn again: "I was sitting at my desk in London one day and I got a call from his right-hand man: 'Alex, here’s the job you always wanted: Design a European super league for Silvio Berlusconi'. I was flattered and I came up with a plan that I thought he would like, but not what football really needed. Eighteen clubs, chosen on merit, history and fanbase."
So, you know. Could have been a whole lot worse.

COMING UP

Big end of season vibes about tonight's options. There's the quarter-finals of UEFA's under-17 championship. There's Auxerre against Saint-Étienne, Vitesse Arnhem against AZ Alkmaar, and Monza against Pisa, in various flavours of play-off. Oh, and there's a whole bunch of cycling and tennis on Discovery and Eurosport if that takes your fancy.
Of course there is a big game on Saturday, and quite a big one on Sunday too. Andi Thomas will back tomorrow with the best of the build-up.
UEFA Europa Conference League
Roma beat Feyenoord to win historic first ever Europa Conference League
25/05/2022 AT 18:11
UEFA Europa Conference League
‘It could take Mourinho to a new level’ – Inside Europe on what a Roma win could mean
25/05/2022 AT 13:54