When the history of Jose Mourinho’s time at Old Trafford is reviewed, this semi-final second leg, effectively sealed by Marouane Fellaini’s 17th minute header which put them 2-0 up on aggregate, and completed despite a late goal from Facundo Roncaglia, could be the moment United finally became united again.
It wasn’t won through beautiful football, high octane wing play or a style of play that would be recognised in the glory, glory days — but it was done the Mourinho way, even down to a late fracas which saw Eric Bailly and Roncaglia sent off.
There was also one heart-stopping moment in the 96th minute of injury time when Celta looked certain to score a last ditch winner, only to fluff the opportunity and leave a roaring Old Trafford in as high spirits as anyone has seen since the days of Fergie time.
“Bailly was probably naive. We now lose a very important player for the final, and we don’t have many,” said Mourinho .
“Ajax will be difficult, they are a young team, strong team, they finish the league this weekend and will have 12 days to recover. We have three matches in that time.”
The result, 2-1 on aggregate, means United will face Ajax in the final in Stockholm on May 24, justifying Mourinho’s gamble to prioritise the competition and, perhaps, taking them one more step along the road to finally “moving on”.
That journey hasn’t been easy, not even under Mourinho who specialises in trophies and has already seen his team lift the League Cup this season. But this victory is the new United — and on this occasion Old Trafford loved it.
The Europa League is the only major European trophy United have never won and the match-day programme ‘United Review’ ran a front page piece describing it as the ‘missing piece’ in the club’s trophy jigsaw.
That’s probably overplaying it but in terms of United’s development under Mourinho and their short term future there’s no doubting this was a massively important fixture, with the winners gaining automatic qualification to the group stages of next season’s Champions League.
For that reason Mourinho insisted his decision was not a gamble; but he must have known he would be in for a tough time from fans and media if it all backfired and United crumbled against Celta to miss out on the final.
Thankfully for the Stretford End that never looked likely from the moment Fellaini gave his side the lead in the 17th minute, Rashford finding him unmarked at the far post with a beautifully floated deep cross. The former Everton man was never going to miss from there, although Celta goalkeeper Sergio Alvarez made it pretty easy for him anyway.
Nevertheless, it was a crucial header from a man who has suffered plenty of criticism since David Moyes took him from Goodison, amid constant complaints that he isn’t a ‘United style’ player and is a symbol of their decline.
On this occasion, United were hugely thankful for Fellaini’s brawn and directness, especially as they had made a very nervous start and been fortunate to see Sergio Romero save an excellent early effort from Iago Aspas.
Celta missed some excellent opportunities to equalise before the break, too, as United continued to sit on their lead and the underdogs were often the more constructive and certainly the more aesthetic team to watch despite the scoreline.
There’s still a sense this United team is hard to love – and has yet to totally win over supporters who, so used to high octane entertainment.
United’s safety-first approach allowed Celta to weave pretty patterns around the field as if they were Barcelona and hardly encouraged a boisterous response from the terraces. But he eventually got what he wanted in a frantic finale.
Before that, Henrikh Mkhitaryan came close to a second goal with a shot from distance which was well saved, while Rashford’s burst of genius created another excellent opportunity and Fellaini had an effort saved.
Again, however, those misses proved costly when Roncaglia finally made Celta’s possession count, scoring from an 85th minute short corner.
It set up a frantic and pulse-raising final few minutes in which Bailly and and Ronaglia were sent off and a string of other players had to be held back by teammates.
It might not be be glory, glory Man United like the old days but it is a model which you can be pretty sure will deliver trophies.
So if the Special One lifts the Europa League in Stockholm and takes his team into the Champions League next season, who’s to argue?
Romero 6, Valencia 7, Bailly 7, Blind 7, Darmian 6, Fellaini 8, Herrera 7, Pogba 6, Mkhitaryan 7 (Carrick; 6), Rashford 7 (Smalling 6), Lingard 6 (Rooney 6). Subs not used: de Gea, Jones, Mata, Martial,
Sergio 6, Hugo Mallo 7, Cabral 6, Roncaglia 7, Jonny 6, Wass 7 (Sanchez Ruiz 45; 6), Radoja 6 (Bongonda 67; 6), Hernandez 7, Aspas 7, Guidetti 7, Sisto 6 (Beauvue 78; 6). Subs not used: Villar, Fontas, Marcelo Diaz, Jozabed, Sergi Gomez.
Ovidiu Alin Hategan (Romania)