Jose Mourinho admits that Manchester United remain adrift of the continent’s elite ahead of his side’s Champions League return.
Europa League glory brought a much-needed return to European football’s top table, with last season just the second time in 22 years that the Red Devils had missed out.
Mourinho believes the Champions League is the “natural habitat” of the three-time European champions, who kick-off Group A against Basel at Old Trafford this evening.
It will be United’s first match in the competition for 644 days and appears a great opportunity to hit the ground running.
“I think motivation is very important and of course motivation is very high,” Mourinho said.
“Being back in the Champions League is going back to the natural habitat.
“Manchester United have been there season after season. For some players there’s the motivation of playing in it for the first time, so we look forward to the match and I hope also Old Trafford feels it in the same way we are feeling.”
The Portuguese knows quite a challenge lies in wait in this competition
“I think in the Champions League there are four or five teams with an incredible level of quality, of experience, of know-how and that’s what makes the difference.
“Apart from that, there are many teams in the Champions League that are very similar to teams in the Europa League.
“In fact, Feyenoord and Anderlecht, who we played last year in the Europa League, were champions in their countries and now they are playing in the Champions League, so there are many teams with similar qualities.
“We have to try to qualify, we have to try to go to the last-16 and enjoy that special knockout phase with the best teams in Europe.”
While the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Juventus are sure to make life hard, few expect United to slip up in a group containing Basel, CSKA Moscow, and Benfica.
Their impressive start to the Premier League has only furthered that belief, with Mourinho speaking of the confidence coursing through his squad ahead of the opener.
The Portuguese is also boosted by the likely return of Marouane Fellaini — a divisive figure whose midfield presence was missed in Saturday’s 2-2 draw at Stoke.
The recurrence of a calf complaint sustained on international duty was behind his absence and appeared to grate on Mourinho as Fellaini played for Belgium against Greece despite the issue being flagged beforehand.
The 29-year-old missed training on Sunday but returned to the group yesterday, when Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw, and Ashley Young were among others in action on their return from long-term injuries.
“He’s a very important player for me — much more important than what you can imagine,” Mourinho said. “I feel weaker without Fellaini in my squad.
“It doesn’t matter if it is on the pitch or if it is on the bench, so if his conditions improved he will be selected because I need him. But in this moment I cannot say yet.”
Mourinho was able to confirm that David De Gea will start ahead of Sergio Romero in goal, while Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof will come in for the suspended pair of Phil Jones and Eric Bailly.
“It is not an opportunity, it is just normal,” Mourinho said of his centre-back changes.
“I don’t think Bailly and Jones are better than them. I think they are the same level, they are just different players.
“Even if Jones and Bailly were not suspended, probably I would still play Lindelof and Smalling tomorrow because for me they are the same level. It is just a question of option.
“We were playing one match per week, I never felt reasons to make changes, but I play them tomorrow and, for me, it is exactly the same as Bailly and Jones.”
It feels a particularly important night for Lindelof. The Sweden defender, a big-money signing from Benfica, has not featured since a shaky display in the Super Cup defeat to Real Madrid and will make his first Old Trafford start tonight.
“I think it is easier for him to play Champions League,” Mourinho explained.
“It is more comparable to the Portuguese style of football.
“He needs a little bit of time to adapt to the Premier League, especially to the new Premier League.
“Intelligent kid, very bright, very calm.
“He knows that step-by-step he is going to be there, but for tomorrow I am more than confident and I know he is more than confident.”
The History books
* The teams first met in the 2002/03 second group stage, United winning the first game in Switzerland 3-1 with Ruud van Nistelrooy scoring twice. Ole Gunnar Solskjær got United’s clinching third goal after Christian Giménez had given Basel a first-minute lead.
* Giménez was also on target in Manchester on
March 12, 2003, his 14th-minute strike helping Basel to a 1-1 draw with Gary Neville claiming United’s equaliser.
* Basel earned another crucial point at Old Trafford in the 2011/12 group stage. Two goals from Danny Welbeck (16, 17) put United in charge only for Fabian Frei (58) and an Alexander Frei double (61, 76 pen) to leave Basel on the verge of a famous win; however Ashley Young salvaged a draw for United in the 90th minute.
* There would be no escape for United in Switzerland on matchday six though. Needing a point to clinch second place in the section, United fell behind to Marco Streller’s ninth-minute opener and their fate was effectively sealed when Alexander Frei made it 2-0 with six minutes to go, despite Phil Jones pulling one back in the 89th minute. The result left Basel second in Group C and United third.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved