'I still can't believe it, it's like a dream' - Kumbulla looking forward to working with Mourinho at Roma

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Between the European Championship, the Copa America and many more tournaments coming up this summer, perhaps a friendly between Wales and Albania on Saturday in Cardiff isn’t a standout fixture.

But for 21-year-old Roma centre-back Marash Kumbulla it couldn’t be more important. 

The Albania international defender will be hoping his new club boss Jose Mourinho will be watching as he tries to show why he deserves a more regular spot in next season’s starting XI while dealing with the threat of Real Madrid superstar Gareth Bale. 

Kumbulla is excited about the prospect of facing Bale on Saturday and believes testing himself against players of that calibre improves his game.

“I’m very excited. Wales have a lot of talented players and it’s a match that will help Albania to grow,” Kumbulla told Goal from his hotel room in Wales. “I’m really looking forward to facing Bale. I’m always very excited to play against great champions because it helps me gain more experience.”

He knows what it’s like to come up against top attacking players. He names Juventus forward Paulo Dybala and recently-crowned Scudetto winner Romelu Lukaku as his toughest opponents to date and he’s also faced Cristiano Ronaldo four times.

“When you’re on the pitch you don’t think about playing against him because you have to be concentrated on the game but then, afterwards, when you look back at the footage, it's a strange feeling, but a good one,” he said. “Because since I was little, I saw him playing for the best teams. So, playing against him was strange but made me very happy.”

Those sort of occasions don’t faze the defender and he felt no pressure when making the move to Roma from Hellas Verona last summer. There was plenty of interest from various different clubs around Europe - including Tottenham - after an outstanding season for the Gialloblu. 

However, as soon as Roma became an option, it was a simple decision to make. 

"I was flattered because a lot of strong teams wanted me but when I heard AS Roma wanted me it was an easy decision," he said. "Within a few hours I had decided to go to Rome and I was so happy about it."

Marash Kumbulla Roma Cristiano Ronaldo Juventus GFX

It did, however, prove to be a frustrating season for Kumbulla, especially given his standing as one of the most highly-rated young central defenders on the continent. He didn't get the regular playing time he would have been hoping for, starting only 14 matches in Serie A and 21 in all competitions overall. 

But he holds no grudges against outgoing coach Paulo Fonseca, who was relieved of his duties at the end of the season.

“I have a good relationship with Fonseca, obviously I wanted to play more but when you’re in a very good team with very talented players sometimes it’s difficult to find space,” he diplomatically reflected. 

Kumbulla has been learning from former Manchester United player Chris Smalling and, while watching the centre-back closely in training has aided his technique, he believes that his biggest development has come off the pitch. 

"I try to speak English with him because he doesn’t speak very good Italian," he says of the Premier League winner. "He’s shown me that he’s a very experienced player that has played for a lot of high-level teams and I’ve learnt a lot from him, from how he plays.

"It has been more about watching him and learning from his gestures than with words, both on and off the pitch."

During his early days in Rome, Kumbulla found it difficult to adapt to his new life away from his family for the first time but has settled into life in the Italian capital and believes Fonseca brought his game on. 

With Roma finishing seventh in Serie A, however, and with no silverware, Fonseca’s tenure came to an abrupt end. Mourinho will lead the team for the new season which is an exciting prospect for the ambitious Kumbulla. 

Marash Kumbulla Mourinho Quote GFX

“I still can’t believe it. It’s like a dream to be coached by Mourinho and it’s going to be another reason to improve and grow a lot more,” he said. “I haven’t spoken to him yet but I know I’ll speak to him when he arrives in Roma and it’s going to be an incredible experience.”

Mourinho has won trophies at clubs all across the continent - including at Porto, Chelsea, Inter, Real Madrid and Manchester United - and Kumbulla believes his track record of success will transform Roma.

“The most important thing Mourinho will bring to Roma is a winning mentality,” he said. “Everybody knows that he has won something in every team he has managed. I will learn a lot of tactical and technical things from him but the most important thing is the winning mentality.”

Kumbulla has a fixture against the Czech Republic to look forward to following the Wales clash but Albania have not qualified for the Euros as they did in 2016. The Italian-born star will, however, be cheering for Roberto Mancini's Azzurri at this summer's tournament.

"I’ll be watching all of my team-mates and will cheer them on," he said. "I’m not sure who’s going to win because there’s a lot of strong teams but I hope Italy win because they’re like my second country."

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Then, after these two games and a quick summer break, the hard work begins under the new manager. 

“On a personal level I want to play to my maximum level and to help the team while doing that,” he said. “But the most important thing is for the team to achieve their goals, that is very important because we didn’t reach them this year which makes it even more important to reach them next year.

“And Mourinho is the best choice to help us do that because he’s won with almost every team that he has trained. He will bring new ideas and a new way of playing that will help the team.”