Diego Forlan: Europa League success a launch pad for Manchester United to return to former powers
Diego Forlan writes a weekly column for The National, appearing each Friday. The former Manchester United, Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid striker has been the top scorer in Europe twice and won the Golden Boot at the 2010 World Cup. Forlan’s column is written with the assistance of European football correspondent Andy Mitten.
That was a huge win for Manchester United against Ajax in Stockholm.
The Premier League and is a more important trophy than the Europa League – the Uefa Champions League is too – but United were not ready to win either of them this season.
They were ready to win the Europa League in Jose Mourinho’s first season in Manchester though, a fine trophy to win, and I speak from experience.
When we won the Europa League at Atletico Madrid in 2010 it helped provide a foundation for the success we have seen at the Vicente Calderon since. That victory gave the team, the fans and everyone at the club confidence that they could be winners again.
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When I arrived at Atletico in 2007, the attitude was too defeatist. This was a team that finished sixth or 10th, who had been relegated at the start of the century. It is crazy to think of Atletico Madrid in the second division but it happened.
Atletico’s players were used to playing really well one week and then losing the next. I think that with players such as Sergio Aguero and David de Gea, we helped change that mentality. When I left Atletico in 2011, they were winners again and Diego Simeone has taken them to another level.
United needed a similar lift. They have been struggling since Alex Ferguson left in 2013, using three different managers. They did not just lose the manager, but key staff too like chief executive David Gill. It is a club which has undergone a massive transition after Ferguson was in charge for 26 years.
United made some bold moves with their managers, but Mourinho is the first one who looks like he’s working out. They’ve made some bold moves in the transfer market too and when you break the world transfer record the expectations are going to be difficult to control, but players need time to settle. Just because you’re the most expensive player in the world doesn’t mean that you’re suddenly going to be the best player, but I think Paul Pogba has a great future at the club. He played very well against Ajax.
Mourinho has bought himself time, though his job was under no pressure. United give their managers time to work and their fans are very supportive. Mourinho has said that he should be judged after he’s been in charge for three years, but he’s quickly showed that he’s a winner with three trophies in his first season.
The Community Shield, League Cup and Europa League is not like the other treble which United won in 1998/99, but that great side took years to build.
Mourinho has been at United less than a year, but when the next pre-season team photo is taken there will be three big trophies in it — literally, because I’ve lifted the Europa League Cup and can confirm that it is a big, heavy trophy.
Crucially, United did not want to go back into the draining and lengthy Europa League competition. They have enjoyed the adventure, but the Champions League is where they should be and reaching it makes this season a success for them.
Aiming only to play in the Champions League is not the greatest success for the biggest club in the world, but reaching it will help towards United becoming the force they were before.
Mourinho has made them hard to beat in Europe – they lost only two of 15 games in the Europa League this season, away matches at Feyenoord and Fenerbahce. United then scored four goals against both in the home leg at Old Trafford.
Defeat against Ajax would have stalled that progress, but it never looked likely as United controlled the game against a young and less experienced side.
Plenty of those Ajax players will have their day, while United can become great again. They will make more changes and Mourinho has already told the club which new players he wants to bring in.
The officials now have to bring them in, just like they did last year, but United are in a strong position because the club is doing so well financially.
They will spend a lot of money in the summer, and they need to. Everyone is on a high after Stockholm – although the mood is also affected by the terrible events in Manchester earlier in the week – but remember that United finished only sixth in the league.
I know United eased off to concentrate on the Europa League over the last month, but it is not like they dropped from second to sixth. United were sixth for most of this season and that is not good enough.
Mourinho took a gamble with the Europa League and it paid off. It will help his recruitment immensely. United were always very attractive to players; they were the club that took me from my home in South America to Europe. They have the status of the biggest clubs, huge crowds of 75,000 for every home game, but Champions League football makes United much more attractive.
Antoine Griezmann, who has been so effective at Atletico, is wanted by United. He has the talent to do well there, though part of me would be sad to see him leave. But football changes and I will see that again this weekend when I will be in Madrid for a last game at the magical Calderon featuring Atletico Madrid legends on Sunday.
I cherish some wonderful memories from there and several of them were in the Europa League, a competition which served Atleti well. It has undoubtedly done the same for United.
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