When Jose Mourinho took charge of Manchester United, at his very first press conference in July 2016, the boss expressed his dissatisfaction at not being in the Champions League after the team had finished fifth in the previous season's Premier League table, behind Manchester City on goal difference.
”I feel a bit frustrated I’m not playing in it,” he said.
“I don’t hide that I chase Sir Alex [Ferguson]’s record in the Champions League. But the club is much more important than me and we have to make sure this club is where it has to be.
Qualification for the top continental competition was duly secured with the excellent success in the Europa League. Last term, of course, the Reds finished runners-up to City domestically to once again obtain a group spot and help Jose move closer to Sir Alex’s tally of 194 matches in the tournament, a figure achieved over some 22 campaigns.
Arsene Wenger and Napoli’s Carlo Ancelotti are the only other coaches to have taken charge of more Champions League games than Mourinho and, at 55, he can harbour realistic hopes of overhauling Sir Alex at the top of the tree. After all, as he pointed out after the 1-0 win over Young Boys at Old Trafford, he has an exemplary record of qualifying into the knockout stages on each of the 14 occasions he has managed a club in this situation.
|Sir Alex Ferguson||194||22|
|Louis van Gaal||95||10|
Once again, it is a case of mission accomplished in this regard – and with a game to spare. United were placed in a group with a Juventus side reckoned to be one of the favourites to lift the trophy, the fourth best team last term in Spain, in Valencia, and the top club in Switzerland. And yet we are safely through already and Juventus have to win in Bern to guarantee top spot as the Reds have a better head-to-head record with the all-conquering Old Lady, which is an achievement in itself.
It seems to have been underplayed that Juve had only suffered two defeats in 34 European matches at their home ground, winning 20 of those ties. Since our 2-1 triumph, they have won again – against Valencia on Tuesday. The Bianconeri have won the last seven Serie A titles and are, at the time of writing, eight points clear in the latest table.
So, naturally, that remarkable victory at the Allianz Stadium does provide hope that United should be not be fearful when the draw for the last 16 takes place on 17 December in Nyon. Anything can happen in knockout football as last season showed when Sevilla took their chances to score crucial away goals at Old Trafford to progress, after a hard-fought draw in the first leg.
An exit at that stage was disappointing but was, effectively, a first stab at the tournament after the Europa League triumph for Jose’s team. Many of the current squad will, no doubt, have learned from the experience and discussions will be held to meticulously prepare for our next opponents, between now and February. The importance of the away-goals rule could certainly be in the forefront of our minds as our task became so much harder when Wissam Ben Yedder opened the scoring last March.
What is for certain is United can already look forward to being engaged in Champions League combat next February and March, a matter of reassurance for all supporters. If Napoli do not progress from a tough group also containing Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool and Red Star Belgrade, then the Reds’ manager will be the most experienced in the competition.
And let’s not forget no manager has ever lifted the famous trophy with three different clubs. Jose guided Porto and Inter Milan to European glory when few fancied them as genuine contenders to rank him alongside Ernst Happel, Ottmar Hitzfeld, Jupp Heynckes and Carlo Ancelotti. That will be providing further fuel and incentive for a manager who is rightly proud of his record and his historical standing within the game. Furthermore, as he was quick to stress on his appointment, Manchester United also deserve to be at Europe’s top table.
No matter the outcome of the final group fixtures, Jose’s men will be among the leading 16 teams on the continent again in 2018/19. And we have a manager who knows what it takes to go all the way in the competition, even when the odds might be stacked against us. When it comes down to the crunch, there is every reason to approach the knockout stages with optimism.The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.
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