Jose Mourinho’s depleted Manchester United side face Swansea at Old Trafford on Sunday with the manager praising the spirit shown by his exhausted squad.
Louis van Gaal, Mourinho’s predecessor as United manager, is not remembered with any fondness by the majority of the club’s supporters.
But Mourinho believes the Dutchman succeeded in pulling together a squad of strong characters, although their resilience is now being tested as United maintain their bid for a top-four finish in the Premier League and success in the Europa League.
“The group was a nice group, honestly,” said Mourinho, who served as a novice coach under then Barcelona manager Van Gaal at the Spanish giants in the late 1990s.
“Good people, good boys, committed people.
“I think Mr Van Gaal left a good group of boys with very good relations between them and I got that in my hands.”
The Portuguese added: “I think they missed happiness, they missed trust, they missed belief.
They missed this extra bit that brings resilience, brings you fight. They have it.
“So next July 9, when we meet again for next season, it’s a stronger group. So the new players when they arrive will find a group more ready to go for big things,” the former Chelsea manager explained.
“But the reality is that we are fighting to win the Europa League and we are fighting to try to finish fourth, so let’s go.”
The arduous season, which has also seen United reach the quarter-finals of the FA Cup and win the League Cup, has taken its toll on the team physically.
Central defenders Phil Jones and Chris Smalling remain out injured for the Swansea game, with Marcos Rojo having suffered a season-ending knee ligament injury.
That led Mourinho to joke he might name himself in the starting side, along with youngster Axel Tuanzebe whose entire first-team experience amounts to 22 minutes as a substitute against Wigan in the FA Cup.
United may have Juan Mata, sidelined since the middle of March, available for Swansea but France international Paul Pogba remains out with a leg muscle injury and is being saved for Thursday’s Europa League semi-final with Celta Vigo.
Mourinho will also be without Belgium international Marouane Fellaini, who starts a three-match suspension, after his red card for head-butting Sergio Aguero in the midweek goalless derby draw away to Manchester City.
Amazingly, given their schedule, the Etihad stalemate extended United’s unbeaten league run to 24 games — equalling their best such sequence in a single top-flight season.
For all the fatigue within the squad, United defender Matteo Darmian has insisted he and his team-mates will not use tiredness as an excuse for any poor results between now and the end of the campaign.
“Yes, we haven’t got too much time for recovery and to prepare for the game but, from now until the end of the season, we play every few days, so we have to be ready,” he said. “It’s our objective to finish in the top four.
“We have to win and put pressure on Manchester City and Liverpool,” he added.
Swansea will kick off in the relegation places and, with Burnley and Hull playing 24 hours earlier, could be as many as five points from safety by the time they take the field.
Paul Clement, the Swansea coach, sympathised with Mourinho’s injury problems but stressed the Welsh club would be the underdogs at Old Trafford.
“United have been playing Thursday and Sunday for many weeks now and they have an injury list which I’m sure the manager is not happy with,” he said.
“But we know it will not be easy. You always hope when you play a big team at their stadium that they have a slightly off-day and you have a chance.”
Clement hopes that midfielder Jack Cork (ankle) and defender Martin Olsson (hamstring) recover from their respective injury problems in time for Sunday’s match.
But Wayne Routledge has been ruled out after the winger had a hernia operation this week.