Football: Top 4 is not a trophy, Europa is

Manchester United right-back Antonio Valencia celebrating his 90th-minute goal with midfielder Marouane Fellaini. United will next play West Brom in the league as they continue their push on two fronts
Manchester United right-back Antonio Valencia celebrating his 90th-minute goal with midfielder Marouane Fellaini. United will next play West Brom in the league as they continue their push on two frontsPHOTO: REUTERS

Mourinho aware it's not just silverware but also guarantees Champions League

LONDON • Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho said he would rather win the Europa League this season than finish in the top four of the English Premier League, even if his side will be fighting their hardest to do both.

United, who won the League Cup last month, moved up to fifth in the league - four points behind fourth-placed Liverpool and two games on hand - with a 3-1 league win at Middlesbrough on Sunday.

They face Anderlecht next month in the Europa League quarter-finals, with the first leg away in Belgium on April 14.

"If I can choose, I will choose the Europa League rather than to finish fourth because it gives us the same - Champions League football," the 54-year-old told the club website.

"It is a trophy, it is prestige, it is Europe and it means playing a European Super Cup fixture next year."

The Portuguese acknowledged the importance of a top-four finish but said the club's rivals had a distinct advantage in not having to campaign on both European and domestic fronts heading into the final stretch of the season.

"I know Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City do not play in Europe, they only have one match per week," he added. "But we are going to fight like we did (against Middlesbrough)."

The 54-year-old, however, refused to answer questions about an unseemly altercation in the tunnel at the Riverside following a bad-tempered end to Sunday's win.

Stewards were called to separate the warring players as a spat between Middlesbrough's Rudy Gestede and United's Eric Bailly continued beyond the final whistle with a bout of push and shove.

Mourinho walked out of his post-match press conference when asked about it.

Middlesbrough caretaker manager Steve Agnew insisted his players were reacting to provocation after a stoppage-time bust-up between Bailly and Gestede, which initially appeared to include the duo biting each other before replays showed it was only a heated clinch.

"I'm picking up there's something gone on in the tunnel," Agnew said.

"That many bodies were there, it was hard to tell with all the pushing and shoving.

"What triggered it off? I don't know. I've got a group of very well-behaved players, so I can assure you it wouldn't be one of ours."

Mourinho had inflamed matters before the game by suggesting he "knew the names" of the players he claimed had been responsible for the departure of Aitor Karanka, his former Real Madrid assistant who was sacked as Middlesbrough boss last week.

The United manager headed down the tunnel at the final whistle without acknowledging his opposite number, though Agnew confirmed the pair had shaken hands in the tunnel afterwards.

"Was this justice for Karanka?" Mourinho said when asked about his snub.

"I think justice for Karanka is the work he did here, people can never delete that. He took the club from the brink of League One to the Premier League.

"I know what I'm saying, he could have left for a bigger club and yet he stayed. Then, in the end, he loses his job.

"Despite all that's happened, I still think he'll be unhappy we have won, because he wants this club to stay in the Premier League."

REUTERS, THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2017, with the headline 'Top 4 is not a trophy, Europa is'. Print Edition | Subscribe