VIGO, Spain — That Jose Mourinho has chosen a 15th-century fort, converted into a luxury hotel overlooking Vigo Bay, as Manchester United’s base for their Europa League semifinal first leg against Celta Vigo is somewhat appropriate with the Portuguese attempting to foster a siege mentality within his squad ahead of the remaining three weeks of the season.
United often projected an “us against the world” mindset during Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign in charge and Mourinho, not shy when it comes to identifying enemies around every corner, has taken aim at everyone and everything in recent weeks, from the Premier League fixture list to his own players.
Paranoia is too strong a word to describe the mood fostered by Mourinho at United right now, but with areas of the team hotel in Vigo sectioned off as “sterile environments” from other guests, there is clearly a determination to ensure that there are absolutely no distractions as the team prepare to negotiate as many as seven games over the next 20 days.
If United overcome a Celta side currently sitting in 11th position in La Liga to secure a place in the Europa league final in Stockholm on May 24, they will end the campaign having played 64 games in all competitions.
Chelsea, in contrast, could win the Premier League and FA Cup double by playing just 47 games this season and Mourinho has not wasted any opportunity to point out the gruelling workload his players have had to endure this term in comparison to their rivals.
The extra games have led to fatigue, loss of form and an array of niggles culminating in the cruciate ligament injuries sustained by Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo in the same game during last month’s Europa League quarterfinal second-leg against Anderlecht at Old Trafford.
United, quite simply, are limping to the finishing line, which is perhaps why Mourinho has chosen the Pazo los Escudos resort in Vigo.
As his players look out beyond the old fort’s perimeter walls, all adorned by medieval gargoyles and symbols, they will consider themselves the last men standing ahead of the final battle.
Whether the psychological effects of the location have the desired effect on Mourinho’s players remains to be seen, with Celta Vigo likely to prove a tough opponent having already displayed their durability and quality by progressing to their first ever European semifinal with victories over Shakhtar Donetsk, Krasnodar and Genk.
Celta have won five of their nine previous meetings with English clubs in Europe and boast the rare distinction of having beaten both Real Madrid and Barcelona this season, so Mourinho is acutely aware of the threat that they pose at Balaidos on Thursday.
“Because of their situation in La Liga, a comfortable situation, they manage to think just about the Europa League, the best players in best condition, so it is a difficult match for us,” Mourinho said in his prematch news conference. “
“I don’t think they are coming just to enjoy the game. If that was the case, they wouldn’t have played with the second team and lost 3-0 to Bilbao at the weekend. They played three games with their second team, so they are very much trying to win.”
United are now at the business end of the season, however, and Mourinho knows that elimination against Celta will ensure that his first season at Old Trafford is judged as a failure.
He may have guided the club to the EFL Cup in February, but that piece of silverware will mean nothing if United finish the season outside the top four and with no route into the Champions League next season.
It is why the United manager claimed on Wednesday that he will rest players against Arsenal at the Emirates on Sunday, risking further dropped points in the race for a top four finish simply to allow key men to recharge their batteries ahead of next Thursday’s second-leg against Celta at Old Trafford.
And should United progress to the final, Mourinho has insisted that none of the players he will have on duty in Stockholm will face Crystal Palace in the season finale three days earlier.
He is now focusing all his and his team’s energies on the Europa League, but it is a risky strategy.
Even if United overcome Celta, they must then win the final — most likely against Ajax following the Dutch club’s 4-1 semifinal first-leg victory against Lyon in Amsterdam — to claim the ticket back into the Champions League and also land the only major cup that the Old Trafford trophy cabinet has not previously housed.
With a team running low on personnel and fitness, Mourinho is challenging his players to muster one last push.
He has signalled a readiness to cast aside the remaining Premier League games as secondary to the bigger prize of the Europa League, but there is little margin for error.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_