MANCHESTER: Jose Mourinho will unapologetically seek to preserve the freshness of his Manchester United players over their final three Premier League games, he said after they reached the Europa League final.
United will play Ajax in Stockholm on May 24 after a nervy 1-1 draw at home to Celta Vigo on Thursday, in which centre-back Eric Bailly was sent off, gave them a 2-1 aggregate semi-final win.
Whereas Ajax’s season finishes on Sunday, United still have three league games to play and Mourinho said he would have no qualms about making sure his players are in top shape for the trip to Sweden.
“Obviously now Ajax think about the final,” the United manager told journalists at Old Trafford.
“Their league finishes on Sunday and they will have 12 days to prepare for the final and we have three Premier League matches to play.
“Hopefully Crystal Palace (United’s final league opponents) don’t need the last game, because in the last game I’m going to make a lot of changes and nobody can blame us because we have a final two days later.”
With United struggling to secure a top-four finish in the Premier League, having fallen four points behind fourth-place Manchester City, winning the Europa League is their last hope of reaching the Champions League.
But Mourinho said it would be wrong purely to view the final as a means to an end, particularly as United have never previously won the competition.
“It means an opportunity to win a trophy, the opportunity to be back in the Champions League,” said the Portuguese, who won the UEFA Cup — the precursor to the Europa League — with Porto in 2003.
“It means an opportunity to end the season in the perfect way because the final is the last match of the season.”
Leading 1-0 from last week’s first leg in Vigo, United doubled their advantage in the 17th minute when first-leg match-winner Marcus Rashford crossed for Marouane Fellaini to head home.
But Facundo Roncaglia reduced the arrears with five minutes remaining before being sent off following a shoving match with Bailly.
– ‘Galician strength’ –
Celta had United on edge throughout and had substitute Claudio Beauvue shot rather than crossed when he found himself six yards from goal in stoppage time, they might have gone through.
Mourinho said Bailly might have been “naive” during a post-match television interview, but in his subsequent press conference he said he had not seen the incident again and did not want to comment on it.
Despite the agonising nature of their elimination, Celta coach Eduardo Berizzo said his club would reflect with fondness on their Europa League exploits.
“You learn from defeats and eventually down the line you hope to turn those defeats into victories,” said the former Argentina defender.
“I couldn’t be more proud of my players. They covered every blade of grass. I’m proud of the connection they made with the fans that travelled all the way from Galicia.
“Every defeat is bitter. But when you look back on it and analyse it, I think it’ll confirm what I’ve thought about my team all season.
“We’ve had a fantastic season. I can’t blame my players in any way. We couldn’t quite turn our dream into reality, but we showed great bravery out there.”
Celta were roared on by around 3,000 sky blue-clad travelling fans and Berizzo praised the “huge connection” that exists between players and supporters.
“That identity and that pride have grown recently and we’ve opened a huge hope among the supporters to go onto bigger and better things in the future,” he said.
Mourinho also had kind words for the travelling support.
“The fans are fantastic and can be really proud of how their team performed,” said the former Real Madrid coach.
“I felt sorry for them. Knowing the strength of the Galician people, I’m sure they’ll get a great reception from the fans who stayed behind and their