Manchester (United Kingdom) (AFP) – Jose Mourinho identified Liverpool and Arsenal as Manchester United’s chief rivals for Champions League qualification following his side’s 0-0 draw at fellow top-four contenders Manchester City.
Thursday’s stalemate at the Etihad Stadium left United just a point below local foes City, who occupy the Premier League’s fourth and final Champions League qualifying berth.
But Mourinho believes Liverpool, two points above United in third having played a game more, and Arsenal, four points below them having played a game less, are now their principal rivals.
“I think Man City is going to finish top four,” the United manager said.
“The matches they have to play, I see them doing that. I think it’s between us, Arsenal and Liverpool.”
While United’s run-in features successive trips to Arsenal and second-place Tottenham Hotspur, City’s is more benign, a home game with eighth-place West Bromwich Albion their most arduous test.
United are also besieged by injuries and will now be without midfielder Marouane Fellaini for three games after he was shown an 84th-minute red card for headbutting Sergio Aguero.
Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo, Paul Pogba, Juan Mata and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are all sidelined and Timothy Fosu-Mensah picked up an injury after coming on in place of Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
With a two-legged Europa League semi-final against Celta Vigo also looming on United’s horizon, Mourinho admitted his squad is being stretched to its limits.
“We have played 18 more matches than Liverpool,” said the Portuguese, who side equalled the club record of 24 successive top-flight games without defeat.
“Eighteen more matches is like half of a Premier League, almost. Eighteen matches are many miles in the players’ legs. So if you can say that, it’s an unfair fight.
“But we are going for that. We have the semi-final on Thursday. We have a match (at home to Swansea City) Sunday, 12 o’clock.
“We lost two more players today, Fellaini and Timo Mensah, because he has also an important injury in the last action of the game.
“I don’t think we (will) recover any of the others. But we go for it, we fight.
“Twenty-four matches in the Premier League is a lot. The guys have an amazing spirit and here we go again, Sunday.”
– ‘Next question’ –
Mourinho suggested Aguero’s exaggerated reaction to Fellaini’s lowered forehead had influenced referee Martin Atkinson’s decision to send him off.
“I saw Aguero in the tunnel and no broken nose, no broken head,” Mourinho said.
“His face is nice as always. If Sergio doesn’t go to the floor, for sure it’s not a red card.”
City manager Pep Guardiola refused to be drawn on the incident, saying: “Next question. I don’t want to talk about the decisions of the referee.”
City dominated the game, with Aguero volleying against the post in the ninth minute and fit-again substitute Gabriel Jesus seeing a stoppage-time header ruled out for offside.
Guardiola said City’s ongoing struggles in front of goal meant their run-in would be far from straightforward.
“The battle’s always to win the game and be third,” he said.
“But it’s still in our hands. We have five games left — three at home, two away — when every game will be a battle like today.
“Because considering our average in chances created and chances scored, it’s lower all the season. That’s why we have to fight a lot to win the game.
“Now Middlesbrough’s playing for relegation. Then Leicester, Crystal Palace, able to win at Anfield, at Stamford Bridge, easy (win) against Arsenal at home.
“West Bromwich Albion, I admire a person like Tony Pulis. It will be tough to the last moment, but I want to assure we are going to try to play the way we’ve played all season.”
City goalkeeper Claudio Bravo is due to undergo tests on Friday after being stretchered off with a calf injury late in the second half.
Guardiola expects him to miss Sunday’s home game with second-bottom Middlesbrough.
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