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.
Ronaldo in squad
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 (Wednesday 12.15 am IST) 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.”