Jose Mourinho says he has worked “harder than ever” during his first season at Manchester United.
The Portuguese has ruffled feathers during a campaign in which impressive cup runs have been set against Premier League struggles.
An unfortunate knack for drawing games they have dominated has left United sixth in the standings and four points off a Champions League berth, with 12 matches in the 25-game unbeaten run which ended at Arsenal last weekend finishing level.
It means their best hope of a return to European football’s top competition will be to win the Europa League final against Ajax on May 24.
Mourinho accepts it could well be seen as a season-defining match, but believes the groundwork put in during this taxing first season means the campaign has been a success already.
Asked whether the Ajax match was now pivotal in determining this season as a success or failure, Mourinho said: “I think by you, by you media, you have the right to say (that).
“I think it makes sense to say but I don’t feel like that, I don’t want the players to feel like that, I don’t think the board feels like that because we work very hard.
“We work very hard. I have probably worked, this season, harder than ever.
“When I personally analyse, I don’t think that way. But if I was on your side, in your chair, it makes (sense).
“We won a League Cup. We won a Community Shield. Until we could, until the injuries arrived, we fought for the Premier League top four. We had a fantastic record of 25 matches.
“We did things that nobody did in this club in the first season, like winning a trophy, like having the record of Manchester United in the Premier League, unbeatable, like reaching a European final.
“We have good things but, if I was on your side and you are always looking for these kind of capital letters, big headlines, I accept if you say that.”
United have not shot up the league under Mourinho but the performances have boosted fans worn down by his predecessor Louis van Gaal’s prosaic style and starved of the success they had grown used to under Alex Ferguson.
Last season’s FA Cup was the only major trophy United had to show in the three seasons since the Scot’s retirement, with Mourinho taking over a team needing help.
United cannot finish below sixth this season, no matter what happens in their remaining three fixtures.
Trips to Tottenham and Southampton are followed by Crystal Palace’s visit to Old Trafford — a match that comes just three days before the Europa League final.
Asked what his approach to selection would be, he said: “The same. I have to give some minutes to everyone because we have only 15 players, we don’t have more, so I have to play them. But I have to play them mixed. I have to play them by periods and I don’t have another solution.
“In the Premier League, we can only finish fifth or sixth, I think. I don’t think we can finish seventh or we can finish fourth, so fifth or sixth.
“We can win a trophy and by winning that trophy we can play Champions League next season, so that’s the game.
“But obviously, like we did against Arsenal, we didn’t throw the match away. We played, we tried to win.
“But we have one that is more important than others. But the match on Sunday is important for us, too.”
Sergio Romero will start the Europa League final instead of David de Gea barring injury, said Mourinho yesterday.
The Argentina goalkeeper has played 11 of the 14 Europa League matches this season but remains back-up to the outstanding De Gea,
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