Jose Mourinho has remarked that Manchester United are back in their “natural habitat” ahead of their Champions League group stage opener against FC Basel on Tuesday night.
The Portuguese’s men battled relentlessly last season, playing a total of 64 games, for this very moment – to be back where they belong with the big boys – and United will be expected to top a group containing CSKA Moscow, Benfica and the Swiss champions, although supporters will be wary of the deceptive threat posed by the latter two sides. That said, speaking at a press conference on Monday, Mourinho made it clear that there was a confident atmosphere in the dressing room ahead of the clash at Old Trafford.
“To be in the Champions League is just to go back to the natural habitat, season after season, for Manchester United,” he said. “I look forward to tomorrow and hope Old Trafford feels it in the same way we feel it. Our motivation’s high. We’ll try to qualify and enjoy that special knockout phase with the best teams in Europe.”
“In the Champions League there are four or five teams with an incredible level of quality, of experience, of know-how and that’s what makes the difference. But there are many other teams in the Champions League with very similar qualities to teams in the Europa League.”
Eric Bailly and Phil Jones will not feature as they serve the last game of their respective suspensions, paving the way for Chris Smalling and new signing Victor Lindelof to start at the back.
The Swede hasn’t received a minute of action since struggling against Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup, making the match-day squad only once, but his boss believes that, while time is needed for him to settle domestically, he should have no trouble playing in the Champions League.
“I think it is easier for him to play Champions League,” he noted. “It’s more comparable to the Portuguese style. He needs a little time to adapt to the Premier League but I’m more than confident about him. He’s a very good player with a very good potential. There are reasons for the other boys, Eric and Jones, to be worried because Victor’s a very good player.”
He confirmed that David de Gea, who sat on the sidelines for United’s European campaign last year, would start the game against Raphael Wicky’s side. Sergio Romero’s performances between the sticks last year merit continued selection on the continental stage but the Portuguese, quite understandably, will not rotate in the same way this time around.
One player who will not start, on the other hand, is Marouane Fellaini. The Belgium picked up a calf injury on international duty and, while recovering in time to face Greece, was forced to sit out of United’s 2-2 draw with Stoke. And Mourinho has revealed that the midfielder didn’t train on Sunday ahead of the game and expressed doubts over his fitness to feature on Tuesday night.
“He’s a very important player for me – much more important than what you can imagine,” the 54-year-old said. “I feel weaker without Fellaini in my squad.”