Tottenham boss Jose Mourinho says former club Manchester United will be among the favourites to win the Europa League, but questioned the way in which sides who fail to qualify for the Champions League last 16 drop into the competition.
United will enter the second-tier European competition at the last 32 after losing 3-2 at RB Leipzig in their final Champions League group game on Tuesday.
United won the Europa League in 2017 under Mourinho, who will be looking to guide his current club Spurs to the top of the standings in Thursday’s Group J decider.
“The teams that drop down are always strong teams, teams that normally don’t belong to that level of the Europa League competition,” said the Portuguese.
“Manchester United are one of the top teams. The group was very hard, PSG (Paris Saint-Germain), Manchester and Leipzig, very hard. We all knew it was not going to be easy for any one of them and we all knew from that group a top team would drop into the Europa League.”
Former European champions Real Madrid and Ajax are also at risk of dropping into the Europa League’s knockout stages.
Mourinho admitted that the quality of the tournament was enhanced by Champions League teams entering after Christmas, but questioned the sporting integrity of it.
“No doubt the quality improves, the intensity improves and it’s a good thing for the competition,” he said.
“But from the sports point of view is when I think it’s not fair that a team that doesn’t succeed in one competition drops to another.”
Spurs, who have already qualified for the last 32, will be keen to avoid the possibility of meeting the stronger sides in the first knockout round by winning their group with a victory over Antwerp on Thursday.
Mourinho’s team were beaten in Belgium in the reverse fixture but he fancies them to finish the job in north London.
“We did our job to qualify in the first five matches and now in one game at home, with 2,000 fans behind us, we have the chance to play one game to try to win the group,” he said.
“Is that fundamental? I don’t think it is. I don’t think we should be afraid of playing any team in the next phase, but of course normally the teams that win the groups are the best teams so if you can avoid them in the next draw I think it will be an advantage.”