Juan Mata is convinced Manchester United are ready to reclaim their place among Europe’s elite clubs, writes David McDonnell in Skopje.
United have endured four turbulent years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, embarking on a painful period of transition and rebuilding.
After the failed tenures of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho has steered United back to a position where they can challenge for the top trophies.
Midfielder Mata and United, who will return to the Champions League stage this season, take on 12-time European champions Real Madrid here on Tuesday night in the UEFA Super Cup.
Zinedine Zidane’s side may have won three of the last four Champions League titles, during which time United have been in the doldrums.
But Mata believes United can now compete with the likes of Real, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, after coming through their recent spell in the football wilderness.
“We talk about Real Madrid and we talk about the Champions League winners, which the best trophy you can win in European football,” said the Spain international.
“They’re the ones everyone wants to beat. They have a great team and they won the league in Spain as well, so we know how good they are. But United have a great history and a great record of titles.
“We want, sooner rather than later, to be where Real Madrid were last season, which is in the Champions League final.
“We know we’re on our way and building a strong team. I don’t think the gap is very big. We’re talking about the best teams in the world – Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich – and Manchester United is there.”
Newly-appointed United skipper Michael Carrick, who took the armband from Wayne Rooney this summer following his return to Everton, echoed Mata.
Having won the Europa League last season to get back into the Champions League, Carrick said United have shown they are back among the big boys.
“It’s hugely important, it’s a huge game,” said Carrick. “I don’t think you can underestimate what we’ve gone through to get to this stage, to play in this game. It’s a big achievement and we’re taking it very seriously. It’s a big trophy to win and to kick-start the season like that would be terrific for us.
“It’s not one that I’ve managed to win and I don’t think anyone has in our squad so we’re all desperate to do that.”
Mourinho is hoping to make it third time lucky in the Super Cup, having lost in the final twice before, with Porto and Chelsea.
The United boss criticised UEFA for banning Phil Jones from this game, following an incident in the wake of United’s Europa League win over Ajax.
Jones was asked to attend a doping test, but used foul and abusive language towards an official because he wanted to celebrate with his team-mates.
“With Jones, I was expecting the appeal would be negative,” said Mourinho.
“The only thing I hope is that tomorrow, whichever team wins, if some player wants to celebrate and enjoy the moment with his team-mates, the doping committee send someone with him and don’t close him in room and stop him celebrating a special moment.”
Mourinho will hope he is celebrating a special moment with his players, and the third trophy of his United reign, on Tuesday night as they continue their resurrection under him.