Manchester City are favourites to beat Manchester United to a top-four spot in the Premier League due to their absence from Europe, claims Jose Mourinho.
Champions League hopefuls City and United will clash in the Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium on Thursday in another instalment of Pep Guardiola versus Mourinho.
City – fourth in the table – are only a point ahead of United, who are also juggling Europa League commitments ahead of a semi-final tie against Celta Vigo.
And Mourinho heaped pressure on rival Guardiola – who went to Old Trafford and won the reverse game in September – amid United’s congested fixture list.
“They play now one game a week until the end of the season while we have the [Europa League] semi-finals which are very important for us,” Mourinho said.
“Obviously to play one match per week brings teams and players to other levels, so it’s more difficult for us but we are going to try.”
Mourinho continued: “It doesn’t matter what happens in terms of titles we win or don’t win.
“I always feel that the season is very important for me, the players and the club.
“I would say this can be the first season of the next five or six or seven. It can be the first season of better years.
“And the reality is even in the first season of better years we won already [the Community Shield and EFL Cup], and if we manage to win the Europa League and in August to play the European Super Cup against the Champions League winner, it will be magnificent.”
The Manchester derby may find both Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola in a particularly reflective mood.
They are two of the greatest coaches of their era, among the greatest coaches of all time, and yet this Premier League season has delivered them both a bloody nose.
In August, the two of them were projected by many to be vying for the title as other clubs looked on – and, given the money that both of them spent in the summer, this may not have been an unreasonable stance.
Yet both have had protracted struggles at either end of the field, with Manchester City’s defence startlingly generous and Manchester United’s attack frustratingly inaccurate.
Both managers can point to notable progress this year – at one point, City were playing football that made them look untouchable, while United can boast a 23-game unbeaten run — but overall, they may look back at this season with a great deal of disappointment.
They may argue, in mitigation, the rebuilding they had to perform was far greater than most people anticipated, with City looking to replace a rapidly ageing generation of the club’s greats and United looking to move on a series of those who were simply not up to par.
Though they should pose a significant title threat next season, the derby will still be about more than mere bragging rights – a place in the Champions League is still on offer, and there is also a sense that a victory for either team would represent a subtle shift in the balance of power.
Guardiola out-thought Mourinho in the teams’ previous meeting, a 2-1 win for City at Old Trafford last September which looked at times as though it would be an evisceration, but Mourinho has given his team far greater resilience since then.