Reporting from Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, Andy Mitten offers his thoughts on the Uefa Super Cup final.
Manchester United still well behind Real Madrid but Jose Mourinho is making progress
“We don’t have Real Madrid in the Premier League,” offered a relieved Jose Mourinho after watching his side get outclassed in the 2017 Uefa Super Cup Final in Skopje.
“We have top teams in the Premier League, but they are different teams, teams with different qualities.”
Mourinho is right; there is not an English club which is close to the Spanish, European and world champions at present.
United are back in the Uefa Champions League and could draw Madrid in this season's group phase, but Mourinho’s priority is re-establishing United domestically with a serious tilt at the Premier League title.
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As the Portuguese and the 4,000 travelling United fans saw for themselves, they are still some way off the very best. Real Madrid, winners of three of the past four Champions League trophies, showed why they were the best side on the planet at present.
They have not lost an international final since 2000 and won the last 10 in a row including four Champions League finals, three Uefa Super Cups and two Fifa Club World Cups.
Zinedine Zidane, the Madrid manager, said after the game that his team “never get tired of winning” and paid some compliments to United, but he knew too that his team were vastly superior.
“Against a rival like Manchester United, then the key is to control two or three aspects like the second ball in or playing the ball high … we controlled that well,” the Frenchman said.
“We didn’t let them play. When we had the ball, we made the difference. We hold and we control well. We were cool, we took our time and we finish our chances at the right moment.”
Mourinho had agreed, claiming that between the 20th and 40th minute of the match, Madrid played the perfect game.
There were times when United could not get the ball from Madrid’s midfield, with man of the match Isco, who United once scouted, outstanding as he found space which appeared not to exist.
Toni Kroos, a genuine United target, brings balance and drive. Casemiro, a tank of a midfielder often overlooked by Rafa Benitez but highly regarded by Zidane, was a calming influence and goal threat. Luca Modric was sublime. And all that before anyone talks about Madrid’s venerated attackers.
United’s Ander Herrera, Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard ran and covered more ground than their foes. They had more possession too, but this was Madrid they were up against, not Ajax.
When Madrid had the ball, they used it far better. And they did that by leaving Cristiano Ronaldo on the bench for the first 82 minutes. At least he heard United fans singing his name.
It was not until the second period that United began to improve. Mourinho could allow himself some optimism, picking out new signing Matic and substitute Marouanne Fellaini for praise.
“In the second half we found a way to create difficulties for them and to give them the kind of football they don't like and don't dominate,” he said. “I am really happy with our reaction because at 2-0, the next minute we have a double big chance with just [Keylor] Navas in front. And after the 2-1, we had Marcus Rashford face-to-face with the keeper and we had a fight until the last seconds.
"To do that I think is great because I always say that the Champions League is one thing and the Europa League is another thing.
“The Champions League winner obviously has a different potential than the Europa League winner, so for us to come here and to do the positive things we did, I think we have to go with a good feeling and we have to start the Premier League on Sunday with a positive feeling and great experience.”
The Portuguese also conceded that United’s chances of getting Gareth Bale from Real Madrid were minimal because “the club wants him and he wants the club – game over even before it started – everybody knows he is going to stay”.
United are still in the market for new players, ones which will help them reduce the gap between themselves and superior sides. It will take time, but Mourinho is making progress.
United, the Super Cup winners in 1991, have now lost three Super Cup finals in a row following defeats in 1999, 2008 and 2017.
Mourinho’s record against his former club is poor, with no wins in five matches, but Spanish clubs are football’s pre-eminent force. They have won eight of the past nine Super Cups and on the evidence of Tuesday's game, superbly staged in Skopje, that hegemony is set to continue.
It is not easy for the rest to watch, not that Madrid cared as they lifted yet another trophy.