Europa League saved Manchester United’s season — now it’s time to move on to bigger and better things
Ander Herrera ran alone towards 15,000 Manchester United fans and jumped in the air to celebrate, Paul Pogba danced alone to his own eccentric bop and Jose Mourinho also stood alone as he opened his arms wide to receive the roar of those joyous fans.
After a 15-match European traverse from Odessa and Ukraine in the east to Vigo on Spain’s western Atlantic coast, United were the 2016/17 Europa League winners.
The success or failure of United’s marathon 64-game campaign depended on the result of one, concluding match, a single examination. Win against Ajax in the Europa League final and Mourinho could rightly parade his team’s achievements. Lose, and despite February’s League Cup victory, the season would be written off.
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United won comfortably against their youthful foe, with a goal in each half from two of Mourinho’s first signings, one a rather fortunate deflection for Paul Pogba and the other a piece of sublime improvisation from Henrikh Mkhitaryan. They did so to a rousing backdrop of songs from their 20,000 travelling supporters who sang proudly about Manchester two days after a suicide bomber murdered 22 people and injured 59 in their city.
Victory means the team who finished sixth in England’s Premier League will play Uefa Champions League football next season. It ensures the players will remain on full pay and the club’s many sponsors will not see their payments reduced because United are playing a second season in a second-tier European competition, not that the celebrating fans and players were thinking about money as they celebrated long into an unseasonably warm night in the Swedish capital.
Mourinho made a tournament which United fans once sneered at a priority. It was a cup — the only one United had never won in their illustrious history — and it also offered the golden ticket into the Champions League.
United’s side haven’t the quality to compete with the very best in the Champions League this season and were better suited to the Europa League, where the superior technical qualities and athletic prowess of their players gave them the edge over teams working with far smaller budgets. It will be different next season, but Mourinho will be more optimistic after another opportunity this summer to splash his club’s millions in the transfer market.
He told his players two days before the game that they would be playing in Stockholm against a side who had not won in any of their previous six European games away from the Amsterdam Arena.
Such wretched away form was associated with United only last season after they went 16 months without a win in Europe, but United have now won four and drawn two of their last six games on their continental travels.
Mourinho hasn’t, in the words the song United fans have made their own since January ‘got United playing the way that they should’, but this season has been an improvement on the soporific offerings served up by Louis van Gaal’s side.
There’s still some way to go; United lack consistency — even within individual matches. Mkhitaryan, a star in the Europa League this term, was poor in the first half, but scored the second goal in the second half before he was substituted. Anthony Martial, who came off the bench, doubtless possesses immense talent, but he has frustrated his manager as much as the fans who continue to sing his name.
The Europa League has been good to a United side in transition. It has greatly enhanced the standing of Sergio Romero, previously a reserve goalkeeper. And it has given the club a lifeline back to the top table, a brief window of happiness in a wretched week for Manchester.
That joy was most evident at the end, as Wayne Rooney came on for what is likely to be his final game for United with one minute of normal time to play. Rooney was given a rapturous reception by fans of the club he’s served so well, while, on the sidelines the injured Marcus Rojo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Eric Bailly waved their crutches in the air. Behind the goal, United fans high on a emotion sang ‘We’ll Never Die’ and ‘Manchester’ until the whistle blew. When it did, Mourinho’s teenage son jumped on his father, bringing him to the ground in a joyous embrace.
The Portuguese was brought to Manchester to deliver success. The Europa League wasn’t the most obvious target in August, but in May it was the only one left. And it saved the season. United, and Manchester, will go on.
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