[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s 77 days since José Mourinho’s Manchester United side lifted the Europa League in Stockholm. Thousands of Reds were suitably inebriated as goals from Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan secured the only major trophy missing from the club’s hefty trophy cabinet. The prize was a place in this season’s Champions League – and a date with Real Madrid to contest the Super Cup in Skopje.
Far more competitive than, for example, the Community Shield, the Super Cup has not always proven a fruitful competition for United. The Reds’ only previous victory came in 1991, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s side beating Red Star Belgrade 1-0 at Old Trafford. The Scot’s team lost to Lazio in 1999 and Zenit Saint Petersburg in 2008.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Far more competitive than, for example, the Community Shield, the Super Cup has not always proven a fruitful competition for United.[/blockquote]
As in 1991, United comes into this match having won the continent’s junior competition. Yet, that Europa League victory has offered the club momentum coming into the new season. Mourinho has recruited well, adding Romelu Lukaku, Victor Lindelöf and Nemanja Matic to his squad, and enjoyed a profitable summer training programme.
The additions give United a more physical dimension in the season to come; a squad perhaps built for a domestic challenge rather than another European adventure. It was much the same last season, with Europa victory coming almost by accident. Mourinho only prioritised the competition once he perceived United’s chances of Champions League qualification through the league had eroded.
Real will pose a sterner test than Ajax last May, not least because Zinedine Zidane’s side is now two weeks better prepared than the outfit United faced in Santa Clara last month. Mourinho’s side emerged victorious in a bizarre penalty shoot-out following a low-key draw, but the United manager admitted that Real and Spanish rivals Barcelona hold greater quality.
It is the benchmark against which Mourinho’s side will eventually be judged. Real’s quality was underlined by May’s Champions League final victory over Juventus. It meant that the Spanish side the first consecutive winners since the European Cup was rebranded in the 1990s.
“We are going to try, that’s obvious. But that’s also obvious the difference between the Champions League and Europa League winners,” said Mourinho.
“The Europa League is very difficult to win. It’s a lot of matches, you travel, the motivation is not so high. Europa League is not the El Dorado for the players. But the top quality is obviously the Champions League. When you get into semis-finals you have four of the best five or six teams in Europe so there is a difference in quality. It’s possible, we believe it’s possible.”
Mourinho would like to add at least one more player to a squad that is not yet fully balanced. With three weeks until the transfer window closes the Portuguese coach still holds out hope that he can add an attacking player to his ranks. His squad is probably short of a high-quality left-back too, with Luke Shaw unlikely to feature this side of Christmas. Mourinho is hardly enamoured with the former Southampton player in any case.
Those weaknesses emphasise the gap United must bridge to Real and Europe’s other top sides, although the season to come must surely yield greater progress than in Mourinho’s first 12 months at United.
“We talk about Real Madrid and we talk about the Champions League winners, which is the best trophy you can win in European football,” added Juan Mata.
“They are the ones that everyone wants to beat. They have a great team and won the league in Spain as well. We know how good they are. But United have a great history and a great record of titles. We want, sooner rather than later, to be where Real Madrid were last season, which is in the Champions League final. We know we are on our way and building a strong team.
Tuesday will be the first test of that claim.
Real always takes this match seriously, with Zidane seeking to underline the Merengues‘ status as Europe’s premier side. The scale of victory over Juve places the Frenchman’s side among the very best of the modern era.
“Tomorrow’s match is of the utmost importance,” said Zidane on Monday. “We’re here to win, nothing else matters. I’ve been at Madrid for 16 years, but I played for other teams against Madrid and they were the team you always wanted to beat. It’s Madrid – the best side in the world and you want to claim their scalp. We know every year it gets harder for us, but we have personality and hunger and we aren’t tired of winning.”
The summer began with Cristiano Ronaldo seeking to leave Real after the Spanish authorities levied the former United player with a £14 million claim for unpaid tax. Ronaldo may have been posturing – as he so often has in the last five years.
Zidane’s club has spent much of the transfer window selling players rather than buying them. Real sold Alvaro Morata – eventually to Chelsea not United – for around £60 million, and Danilo to Manchester City for the best part of £30 million. The goal: to bring in Monaco’s outstanding young forward Kylian Mbappé.
Team News and Potential Line-ups
New signing Matic may not be ready to play the full 90 minutes, with the midfielder missing most of United’s summer programme as Chelsea stalled on the transfer of the £35 million Serbian. Matic impressed for 45 minutes during a friendly win over Sampdoria in Dublin last week.
Mourinho has a problem to solve defensively, with Phil Jones and Eric Bailly suspended. Bailly serves the second of a three match ban incurred after being sent off in last summer’s European League semi-final. Jones is misses two games after abusing a doping official during last May’s celebrations. Meanwhile, Tim Fosu-Mensah is set to join Crystal Palace on loan and did not travel to Skopje. Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw remain long-term injuries, while winger-turned-defender Ashley Young is also out.
“With Phil Jones, I was expecting the appeal to be negative,” said Mourinho. “No Phil Jones, no Eric Bailly and no Tim Fosu-Mensah. The injuries you all know about – Luke Shaw, Ashley Young and Marcos Rojo. Apart from that, everybody is available. Obviously, Matic is available but not available like the others.”
The United manager could opt for a back-three – he has used system frequently in the summer – although missing players leaves the manager short of options. Further forward, Matic should get a half alongside Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba in a 4-3-3 system. Mourinho will choose between Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Mkhitaryan to support Lukaku.
Real Madrid could include Ronaldo and perpetual United target Gareth Bale after the pair both took part in Real’s training session at the Philip II Arena on Monday. Ronaldo has not featured in pre-season, but is in Zidane’s squad. Bale has recovered from yet another ankle injury.
“He’s relaxed and physically he is as fit as he was on the day of the final two months ago,” said Zidane of Ronaldo. “The fact he is with us means a lot. If he’s with us, it’s because he is ready to play.”
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi (ITA)
Assistant referees: Elenito Di Liberatore (ITA), Mauro Tonolini (ITA)
Additional assistant referees: Davide Massa (ITA), Massimiliano Irrati (ITA)
Fourth official: Clément Turpin (FRA)