This is comfortably Manchester United‘s best league campaign since Sir Alex Ferguson retired as a champion in 2013, yet Pep Guardiola‘s swashbuckling side boast an eye-watering 15-point cushion at the summit.
The Reds Devils have been City’s nearest rivals throughout the campaign but Mourinho concedes the gap is almost certainly insurmountable with 13 games remaining, saying United “need points to be the first of the last”.
It was a surprise admission – albeit a realistic one – from the Portuguese, who is focused on cup glory and runners-up spot in a bid to help propel his side to a better challenge next year.
“I always remember when Sir Alex said in 2005-06, when we won the second title with Chelsea, ‘we need to improve a lot because they raised the bar to such a level’,” Mourinho said.
“‘They won two titles in a row, the second title was easier than the first’ and then the biggest manager in the Premier League said ‘we need to improve a lot’. He felt that moment as a click for the improvement of the team.
“In 2006-07, Manchester United wins the title back. It has to be like that.
“We’re doing better than last season and it’s very important for us to do better than last season,” Jose says. “We are trying to win something this season, and if not, we will try to be stronger for next season.” #MUFC pic.twitter.com/cvKdHvAMjn
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) February 2, 2018
“That’s why I think every match until the end of the season is an important match for us because it is not just about the points and finishing in the top four, which is important.
“But try to finish second, try to play the best we can, try to improve the players individually the best we can, try to be the best possible team in the end of the season.
“And then try to start the Premier League in a good way, like we did this season, but try to be consistent and try not to lose points like we did this season in some matches where we shouldn’t.”
By contrast, City have eked out fortuitous victories thanks to a mixture of skill and determination – attributes Mourinho admires.
But there are aspects about Guardiola’s side that grate on the Portuguese, such as what he feels is a proclivity to go down.
City have not needed any help going to deck recently having been on the end of some nasty challenges that have understandably angered Guardiola and his players, but Mourinho believes refereeing standards are just fine.
“If I was top of the league, you would immediately say I am saying it because I am top of the league and I am very happy,” the United boss said.
“I am not top of the league and I have to say I am happy with the level of performance I am having the season with the referees team.
“Yes, they made mistakes, but I am happy with the level I am having.”
A mistake is what Mourinho believes Maroaune Fellaini could be making if the Belgian does not put pen to paper quickly.
The Belgium international has so far resisted the offer to stay beyond the end of the season and hobbled off with another knee injury shortly after coming on in the midweek loss at Tottenham.
“I told him yesterday ‘sign the contract and shut up’,” Mourinho said with a laugh.
“I told him ‘don’t gamble too much, sign the contract before you know the extent of the injury’.”
Provided by Press Association Sport
The Premier League returns to action on Saturday with the clubs looking forward to the final stretch now the January transfer window has closed.
Here are our match previews :
BURNLEY V MANCHESTER CITY (16:30)
Jose Mourinho effectively conceded the Premier League title to Manchester City on the eve of this weekend’s matches – and it is easy to see why given the 15-point gap.
Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering men make the short trip to Turf Moor looking to rack up a 23rd win in just 26 league matches.
Sean Dyche’s men are flying high in seventh but have endured a dip in form recently, failing to win in their last eight. That run may well extend on Saturday.
LEICESTER V SWANSEA (19:00)
Riyad Mahrez hoped to be heading to Burnley this weekend as a City player. Instead, the Algeria forward remains at Leicester having been outpriced for a deadline-day move to Etihad Stadium.
Claude Puel has done a fine job as Leicester boss but it will be interesting to see how he copes with the impact of a disgruntled player who has not trained since the possibility of an exit arose.
This issue is sure to hang over King Power Stadium, where the visitors are looking to capitalise on unrest and secure another valuable three points.
BOURNEMOUTH V STOKE (19:00)
Bournemouth will be feeling like royalty after their slaying of champions Chelsea on the King’s Road in midweek.
The challenge for Cherries boss Eddie Howe is to ensure his men are just as motivated to beat Stoke.
Although that win took them up to 10th in the table, such is the congestion in the bottom half that only five points separates them from the drop zone. Stoke have the worst away record in the division, meaning they have to be seen off. But boss Paul Lambert has four points from his two games in charge.
BRIGHTON V WEST HAM (19:00)
Jordan Hugill is in contention to make his debut for West Ham when they visit Brighton on Saturday.
The forward arrived at the club from Preston North End before the transfer deadline and, alongside the fit-again Michael Antonio, is available to strengthen David Moyes’ attacking options.
There is an air of mystery about the new signing, who was in the lower reaches of the professional game at Tranmere Rovers only in 2015. But with Andy Carroll and Marko Arnautovic among those out, he has to shine.
WEST BROM V SOUTHAMPTON (19:00)
This really is a battle of the strugglers, with two of the bottom three meeting at The Hawthorns.
Since Alan Pardew took over there, he’s won just one of his 11 fixtures. The only ray of light for them is the fact they held onto highly rated Northern Ireland centre-back Jonny Evans throughout the January transfer window.
If you think Pardew’s record is bad, then Saints are winless in 12. In this relegation six-pointer, defeat for either will lead to worry levels going through the roof.
After being well beaten in midweek against Tottenham, the comeback trail begins on Saturday for Manchester United when they host Huddersfield (19:00) – the promoted side which shocked them in October.
Manager Jose Mourinho has his work cut out since the trip to Wembley included a defensive meltdown and an inability to mesh all his wonderful attacking talent into a coherent XI.
Here, we examine three major talking points ahead of the big kick-off.
WHAT TO DO AFTER A DEFENSIVE DISASTER?
It would have been an uncomfortable watch for centre-back Phil Jones when the postmortem into the Spurs debacle was carried out at United’s Aon Training Complex.
In a first-half to forget, he was first outmuscled in the build-up to Christian Eriksen’s crucial opener after 11 seconds before soon comically slotting into his own goal from Kieran Tripper’s cross.
It’s important to remember that the axis between Jones and Chris Smalling axis had earned clean sheets in the club’s last five matches. Is a reactionary change the correct approach?
The alternatives will not fill Mourinho with hope. Summer buy Victor Lindelof looked physically feeble in the FA Cup at League Two’s Yeovil Town and had a shocker at Huddersfield, while Argentina international Marcos Rojo is still finding his way back to match sharpness.
Jones and Smalling could then remain the safe option – despite their Spurs stumbles – until superb Ivory Coast star Eric Bailly is back in contention “around the end of the month”, as Mourinho confirmed on Friday.
THE POGBA PROBLEM
All the talk pre-Spurs was about fitting in new buy Alexis Sanchez, but it’s now more than 16 months since Paul Pogba was brought back to Manchester and Mourinho seems no closer to knowing how to best utilise him.
Wednesday’s game saw Pogba abandon defensive midfielder Nemanja Matic, argue on the touchline with Mourinho about his positioning and then be unceremoniously hooked after 63 minutes.
In a staccato season, the France superstar is running at a top-flight assist every 143 minutes. But it is only Everton away, when his stationing at Juventus on the left side of a three-man centre midfield was replicated, where he’s looked at his best.
A start for Spain’s Ander Herrera is advised.
REST FOR THE WICKED
United supporters have quickly grown used to the sight of summer buys Romelu Lukaku and Matic.
The pair are the club’s only outfield players to register more than 2,000 Premier League minutes this term, Matic’s 130 minutes ahead of his Belgian colleague on 2,214 minutes from a possible 2,250 minutes.
Even though Huddersfield handed out a 2-1 defeat in the previous meeting, a rare chance at rotation should be grasped. Sanchez, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford should all being capable of biting the Terriers – who have not won in the league since December 16.
In defensive midfield, men at opposite sides of the age spectrum in Scott McTominay or Michael Carrick could deputise.