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Man United fighting for a trophy, a title and Champions League

Cup Competitions

LONDON - As part of the preliminary transfer talks between Manchester United and Antoine Griezmann, the Atletico Madrid centre forward has suggested the English club may wish to pay him more by way of compensation if they do not qualify for next season’s Champions League.

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Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Reuters

On the one hand, that shines some light on the lengths even the biggest clubs have to go to in order to ensure that they can sign the players they really want these days.

Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, it should be noted here, were also joining a club with no place in Europe’s big competition when United agreed to pay them and their representative such astronomical sums last summer.

On the other hand, it tells us simply how important Champions League qualification is to Jose Mourinho and United this time round.

It means so much in many ways, not just in terms of prize money, TV money, prestige, attractiveness to new signings and, of course, in terms of satisfying the egos of everybody concerned.

So it was easy to understand a little hyperbole on Wednesday, easy to accept what Mourinho was talking about when he suggested tonight’s Europa League semi-final is the most important match in his club’s recent history.

Forget about the United manager’s persistent talk of how winning a trophy means more than a place in the top four of the Premier League. The Europa League is just the Europa League, after all — a competition for the also-rans.

It is passage into UEFA’s blue riband competition that means so much and this is what will motivate those in red against Celta Vigo at Old Trafford on Thursday night.

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho and Wayne Rooney during training. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Reuters

Mourinho said: ‘For myself and the players, the Champions League is the Champions League. If you are not there, it is because you are not good enough. This is the step we need to win through.

‘The Champions League is the competition we want to be in. Nobody has more motivation than I have to try to win this game.

‘For Celta, in their words, it’s the most important match of their history and my feelings are that it’s the most important of our history. It doesn’t matter what happened before, what matters is the next one.’

The narrative of the closing weeks of United’s up and down season is now well known. Mourinho’s oft-stated claim is that injuries and a heavy fixture schedule have left him unable to fight for a top-four Premier League finish and a Europa League triumph at the same time.

Ahead of tonight’s game, he went a step further and said: ‘It’s different to play for top four than to play to win a European competition. The difference between fourth and fifth and sixth is that it’s fighting for Champions League, but no trophy, no honour, no prestige.

‘We are fighting for a trophy, a title and on top of it the bonus of playing in the Champions League.’

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: John Sibley/Reuters

All managers seek to change landscapes to suit their own needs, of course. Mourinho has, remember, been known to be rather sniffy about the Europa League before.

The bottom line is that if he can lead United back into the Champions League, by any route, his first season at United will be judged a success. Yesterday he was followed into the room by club captain and substitute Wayne Rooney, who suggested he would like to stay at the club next season.

‘Of course,’ he said, when asked.

When it comes to the machinations of summer transfer business, Rooney may find he is invited to leave, whatever competition United are in.

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