Jose Mourinho is relishing the chance for his Manchester United side to test themselves against the cream of Europe again as they face Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup in Skopje on Tuesday.
United endured an underwhelming first season under the Portuguese manager as they finished sixth in the Premier League, but winning the Europa League allowed them to end on a high and secured their return to the Champions League.
That triumph has also led them here, to the Macedonian capital which is currently baking in summer temperatures of 40 degrees and more, as they meet Zinedine Zidane’s two-time defending European champions in the annual fixture.
The clubs have already met this summer, with United winning on penalties after a 1-1 draw in a friendly in California.
This, though, is the first official fixture of the season for both clubs, with United looking to lift some silverware before their Premier League opener against West Ham United on Sunday.
“The difference between the Champions League winner and the Europa League winner is obvious. The Europa League is difficult to win, there are lots of matches with lots of travelling, but it is not El Dorado for football players,” former Real coach Mourinho said at the Philip II Arena on Monday when asked if his team could overcome the Spanish giants.
“The top quality is obviously in the Champions League, and when you get to the semi-finals you have four of the best five or six teams in Europe. So there is a difference of quality, but we believe that it is possible.”
While Madrid won this trophy last year to make it seven Spanish victories in eight years, United’s only victory came in 1991 and Mourinho has never got his hands on it.
“This is a huge game. I don’t think you can underestimate what we’ve gone through to get to this stage,” added the veteran midfielder Michael Carrick.
Madrid are coming off one of the greatest seasons in their illustrious history as they became the first team to retain the European Cup in the Champions League era and also won La Liga — a double they had not achieved in 59 years.
They failed to win a match during pre-season, though, something that will have reminded Zidane of the need to be even more on their game than ever before in this campaign.
“I have been at Madrid for 16 years, playing and coaching, but I have also been at other clubs and playing against Madrid was amazing,” admitted the Frenchman, who was working at the Santiago Bernabeu during Mourinho’s time in charge at the start of this decade.
“This is the best team in the world. We know that every year our rivals will make life more difficult for us, and that is how it is going to be this season. But we have people who are hungry, who never tire of winning.”
Real have brought a full squad, with Cristiano Ronaldo travelling despite only starting pre-season training on Saturday following a turbulent summer. The suspended Eric Bailly and Phil Jones are among the absentees for United.
The heat could be a key factor with extremely high temperatures forecast for much of the week in this part of south-eastern Europe. It is expected to still be in the 30s come Tuesday’s 8:45pm (1845GMT) kick-off, something that could favour the Spaniards.
“I knew the weather was like this and since we came back from the USA I decided to train in Manchester every day at 4pm but it was raining very day,” joked Mourinho.
“I know in Madrid they have trained in hot weather so they are more adapted than we are but we have to play and we have to enjoy a special moment.”
Provided by AFP
Real Madrid enjoyed a phenomenal campaign last season, completing the La Liga and Champions League double under Zinedine Zidane.
They became the first team to successfully defend European football’s most coveted prize in the process and secured their tag as the team to beat for the 2017/18 season.
Ahead of the new campaign though, the team to beat has been beaten quite often in pre-season. Los Blancos have lost three of their four friendlies over the summer, including a defeat on penalties to Manchester United on July 23.
With the La Liga champions facing the Europa League winners in the UEFA Super Cup on Tuesday night, here’s a look at the key battles that could decide the tie.
Romelu Lukaku has enjoyed a fine pre-season and has a reputation of overpowering some of the finest centre-backs the Premier League has to offer. However, he also tends to blow hot and cold and has been known to be kept quiet when crossing paths with a powerful yet pacey defender.
The Belgian was famously kept under wraps by Eric Bailly last season when Everton faced Manchester United at Old Trafford and in Sergio Ramos on Tuesday night, he comes up against a defender of similar ilk, only more accomplished and experienced.
But with more quality around him and better service to feed off at United, it will be interesting to see if the striker can prove his worth against an elite defender.
Like Lukaku, Nemanja Matic is also set to make his competitive debut for United and his presence in the starting XI will see Paul Pogba enjoy a more advanced role than he was used to last season.
The Frenchman will have the freedom to stride forward more often and explore the space in behind Lukaku. However, that’s also the territory Casemiro is likely to patrol. The Brazilian has been a mainstay in Zidane’s side, offering the balance they require in midfield.
His energy and tenacity in the middle of the park challenges Pogba’s spark and extravagance. The two players employ very different styles and have very different roles but are equally vital to their respective teams.
The reports linking Gareth Bale to United just won’t go away and Jose Mourinho has a lot to do with that. From hugs in the tunnel to openly admitting he would sign the Welshman if the opportunity presented itself, the Portuguese boss has made no secret of his interest in the 28-year-old.
Bale has enough minutes under his belt in pre-season and has looked lively. Left-back has been a position of concern for United with Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo out through injury. Matteo Darmian is most likely to be tasked with containing the Real Madrid speedster and despite the United man’s defensive capabilities, it is a bit of a mismatch.
Darmian may well struggle if he gets too tight to the former Tottenham star. However, a good display against Bale could see the Italian’s stock rise. That left-back slot is up for grabs after all.
Drink breaks will be used in the UEFA Super Cup meeting between Manchester United and Real Madrid if the scorching Skopje weather continues into the evening.
Temperatures have rocketed across southern Europe thanks to a heatwave dubbed ‘Lucifer’, regularly taking the Macedonian capital above 40 degrees Celsius.
It is forecast to be 36C when Jose Mourinho’s United side train at the National Arena Filip II on Monday – and a repeat of those temperatures for the Super Cup itself would see cooling breaks implemented.
The match delegate will decide 90 minutes before Tuesday’s game whether to have drink breaks of three minutes, which will come approximately 30 minutes into each half.
Breaks will be brought in if the temperature exceeds 32 degrees using a digital thermometer reading, or 27 degrees using a wet bulb globe temperature device.
The UEFA delegate will also take into account other factors, such as the temperature dropping as the evening continues – although it is unclear just how low it will go for the Super Cup.
Even if cooling breaks are not used on Tuesday, UEFA says 20 kilos of crushed ice should be provided to both teams and shading provided if the substitutes’ benches are in direct sunshine.