Jose Mourinho says he would be prepared to risk the wrath of Premier League bosses and field a weakened side if Manchester United lose hope of finishing in the top four.
United are focussing on two fronts ahead of Thursday’s Europa League quarter-final first leg away to Anderlecht in the quest to return to what they believe is their rightful home: the Champions League.
Currently lying fifth in the Premier League, United must either move up at least a place and finish in the top four, or win the Europa League in order to qualify for next season’s Champions League.
But they face the risk of player burn-out with fixture congestion a major issue — if United go all the way to the Europa League final, they will play twice a week every week until the end of the season.
And if the Premier League route closes, Mourinho said he would be prepared to rest his players in league matches to keep them fresh for their European engagements.
“When it’s mathematically very possible to finish in the top four, if we play against Chelsea with the second team, you would kill me and the football country would kill me,” Mourinho told reporters on Wednesday at his eve of match press conference, referring to Sunday’s clash with the Premier League leaders.
“Because, while it’s mathematically possible there’s no reason not to try, so we have to try with the risks you’re speaking about.
“But… if in a certain moment of the season we have no chances to get in the top four and we’re still in the Europa League, then there’s a reason nobody can deny or criticise because then if we have only the Europa League, we have to focus on the Europa League.”
That would put Mourinho and United in breach of Premier League rules, that stipulate teams must field full-strength sides in every match.
But should the Red Devils reach the Europa League final in Sweden on May 24, it would come just days after a punishing league run-in.
“Lets got to the scenario that we have to play in one week Tottenham (May 14), Southampton (May 17), Crystal Palace (May 21) and then the Europa League final — if we have no chances in the Premier League, everybody has to accept that we just focus on the Europa League.”
– ‘Ibra can deliver’ –
Should United go all the way to the final, it would be a triumphant return home for star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has never won a European trophy despite claiming league titles in four different countries.
The 35-year-old has fond memories of playing away to Anderlecht, banging in four goals in Paris Saint-Germain’s 5-0 win in Brussels in 2013.
But Mourinho believes it is the desire to reach a European final that will motivate Ibrahimovic rather than any hopes of heaping more misery on Anderlecht.
“He scored goals everywhere, he probably doesn’t even remember that,” said Mourinho.
“We hope he can deliver again because it’s the motivation of everybody in the club to go to the final and I believe maybe he has a little extra motivation because the final is in Sweden and because he’s never played in a European cup final in such an amazing career he’s had.”
Following the triple bomb blast on Tuesday that saw Borussia Dortmund’s Champions League quarter-final first leg against Monaco postponed 24 hours — and left Spanish defender Marc Bartra nursing a fractured wrist — Mourinho said United would be shutting out any such security concerns.
“We try not to think much about it, we try to focus on our job and focus on what we love, which is playing this quarter-final.
“We have to be focussed on it and that’s what we try to do.
“Obviously we will have solidarity with what happened yesterday, with the players that cannot play today, the people that were hurt, but we have to trust the people that are working for our security.”