LONDON - It's less than a hundred miles up the west coast of the Iberian peninsula from Porto, where Jose Mourinho won the old UEFA Cup back in 2003, to the Galician port of Vigo.
‘For Portuguese people, being in Galicia is kind of strange,’ he said after arriving in Spain yesterday. ‘We don’t know if we are back at home, or quite how to feel.’
Mourinho’s feelings towards the Europa League have certainly changed since he embarked on Manchester United’s campaign in Rotterdam last September admitting that he did not much care for the competition.
A dozen games and seven countries later, Mourinho will be in the final in three weeks’ time if United can overcome Celta Vigo, starting with Thursday night's first leg.
He spoke here about ‘closing the circle’ by making United only the fourth team - after Juventus, Ajax and Bayern Munich - to lift all four major European trophies and the Club World Cup. The cup that helped launch his success at FC Porto 14 years ago is also the one United have never won. But there is a practical element to his change of heart as well.
Draws against Manchester City and Swansea have dented hopes of a top-four finish to such an extent that Mourinho may play a weakened team at Arsenal on Sunday. In his mind, the Europa League is clearly the best way back into Europe’s elite next season.
‘It’s the only competition that Manchester United have never won and it would be great to close that circle and say we are a club that won every single competition in the football world,’ he said.
‘The Europa League is a long competition. For a team to be in the semi-final, it has to play the group phase and three knockout phases, and has to travel a lot. So when you arrive in the semi-final you want to be in the final.’
Although United only trail fourth-placed City by one point, their final four games include trips to Arsenal and Tottenham.
Mourinho has never lost to his old rival Arsene Wenger in 15 competitive games, but he is ready to make some sacrifices if required on Sunday ahead of next week’s second leg against Celta. ‘In relation to the Premier League, I think it’s too late because in April we played nine matches, seven of them in the Premier and we had too many problems, too many players absent,’ he said.
‘In this moment the perspective is different because the Europa League becomes even more important for us. Of course, it depends on the result and the way we analyse the situation tomorrow after the match, but if we have to rest players next weekend we are going to do that.’
United’s injury problems were showing signs of easing when they landed in Spain. Paul Pogba, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are ready to return from injury and Eric Bailly is available after recovering from the twisted ankle he suffered against Swansea.
United will start as favourites against a club who have never won a major trophy and are playing in a first European semi-final.
In coach Eduardo Berizzo, however, United will face a proponent of the high-intensity pressing game and two in-form forwards in former Liverpool man Iago Aspas and ex-City striker John Guidetti.
Celta have beaten Barcelona here in each of the last two seasons, and Mourinho was quick to point out that a mid-table position in La Liga has enabled his opponents to rest players for Europe.
Berizzo, for one, believes his team can do it. ‘More than feared, Manchester United are respected,’ said the 47-year-old Argentine.
In the other Europa League semi-final played last night, Chelsea loanee Bertrand Traore scored twice as Ajax beat Lyon 4-1 in Amsterdam to take a giant stride towards the final. Kasper Dolberg and Amin Younes scored Ajax’s other goals, with Mathieu Valbuena scoring for Lyon.
CELTA VIGO (4-1-2-3, probable): Alvarez; Mallo, Cabral, Fontas, Jonny; Radoja; Hernandez, Wass; Aspas, Guidetti, Sisto.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-2-3-1, probable): Romero; Valencia, Bailly, Blind, Darmian; Pogba, Herrera; Mkhitaryan, Fellaini, Martial; Rashford.
Referee: Sergei Karasev (Russia).