There haven’t been many smiles on the face of the Manchester United manager this season. So when Jose Mourinho cracked his joke in the press room at the Etihad Stadium late on Thursday night, he had to laugh.
We all did. He does not have his relatively new audience in the palm of his hand yet but there were enough gentle titters to lift the mood.
“I am training hard in the gym,” Mourinho said as he was asked how he would raise a squad for the five remaining Premier League matches and their assault on the Europa League, which resumes with a trip to Celta Vigo on Thursday. “So I can be available. Maybe Mourinho is back as centre-half.”
Of course, this is no laughing matter. Although there was a glint in his eye, and the merest raising of his lips as he spoke, there was the hint of a serious message to the United board, and the supporters, as he looks ahead.
He is patching up his team for the most crucial month of this season and Champions League qualification is still in the balance, despite having an astonishing 24-game unbeaten run behind them. Mourinho is used to challenging, not these kind of challenges.
“Manchester City are going to finish in the top four,” he said. “With the matches they have I see them doing that, so it is between ourselves, Arsenal and Liverpool for the last place. And we are trying, but the reality is we have a game at midday on Sunday (at home to Swansea City today) and a Europa League semi-final on Thursday and we have loads of problems.
“We will go with what is possible but we are going to fight. We are in trouble but we fight, that is for sure. We have played 18 more matches than Liverpool this season – that is almost half a Premier League season – and there are a million more miles in the players’ legs. So it is an unfair fight but we are going for that.”
A dozen players were unavailable to Mourinho for the turgid battle he engineered on Thursday in Eastlands. Two more will not feature against Swansea today; the brainless, suspended Marouane Fellaini and substitute Timothy Fosu-Mensah, who was injured in his 10-minute appearance.
Although he hopes to have Paul Pogba and Juan Mata available for the first leg in north west Spain in four days’ time, Mourinho is resigned to approaching the four-game league run-in with his resources stretched. That will be unsustainable next season when his intention is to present a more realistic challenge to Chelsea, Tottenham and City.