It may not be Bayern Munich in the Nou Camp or Chelsea in Moscow but Ajax in Stockholm matters — and long gone are the days of ‘Thursday night, Channel 5’ being sung by the Stretford End as the ultimate insult to a desperate rival grasping at the coat tails of the big four.
Somewhere along the line, reflecting the on-field tactical shifting of manager Mourinho, the competition reserved for those who are second-best has been rebranded by United as ‘the missing piece’. The only major European trophy the club has never won.
The internet chatroom mocking of a once-proud competition — by many people’s estimation ruined by Uefa’s decision to ‘relegate’ unsuccessful teams into it from the Champions League group stage — is over, replaced by talk that a final in Stockholm can be the springboard to better things, the route to a new era.
It means a trophy once seen as a punishment for Premier League fallibility is now a stepladder back to the top.
It’s not just United straining to reach that final rung back to the big time, either. The once mighty Ajax are glimpsing nirvana after too many years playing second fiddle to Europe’s big boys.
The club which won three consecutive European Cups in the 1970s, the home of Cruyff, van Basten, Rijkaard, Bergkamp, and Kluivert, hasn’t lifted the trophy since 1995 and has required a total rebuild from the bottom up to get anywhere near it again.
Head coach Peter Bosz is going about it in a rather different way to United, focusing entirely on youth development rather than on big-money signings, and his success paves the way for a fascinating final between two giants of European football whose history says they should be playing for the bigger prize — but who have recognised what the Europa League can do for them.
The big turning point for the competition has been a new rule offering the winners a direct route into next year’s Champions League, no matter where they finish in their domestic competition, and Mourinho was perhaps the first to spot the potential implications of that change.
All the talk recently has been of the Special One prioritising the Europa League over the Premier League, of taking a ‘gamble’ on United’s future by choosing it as the quicker and more likely route to Europe’s top table. But it’s a gamble United’s manager opted on right from the very start of the competition.
He may have left Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the bench for the opening group stage match against Feyenoord, which United lost 1-0, but the striker was in the team for the second game at home to Zorya and was virtually ever-present from then on as Mourinho selected his strongest possible 11 for the remainder of the competition.
The Europa League didn’t only become a priority in April — it had been earmarked long before. So when other managers rested players, kept their star men for the Premier League, and focused on domestic glory, the agenda at Old Trafford was different.
Ibrahimovic, at the age of 35, played 11 games in United’s route to the final, scoring five goals (including the winner in that match against Zorya and a hat-trick against St Etienne) and there may even be an argument that those extra games played a part in his eventual injury.
That, however, is a discussion for another day because the big question now is whether Mourinho will ultimately be rewarded for his commitment to the Europa League — or suffer for his gamble.
Certainly, there’s a case to say he deserves the rewards that victory in Stockholm would bring. Not only would it see United back in the Champions League but it could also help shape the future of a club and squad which, like Ajax, is still fighting to emerge from the shadows of the past to get back where it belongs.
The possibility of going into next season without big-name signings, without a proper replacement for Ibrahimovic, is a frightening one when you look at United’s struggle to score goals when it really mattered this season — and attracting the kind of names Mourinho wants is a whole lot easier when Champions League football is guaranteed.
The possibility of seeing Neymaar, Griezmann, or Mbappe at Old Trafford next season decreases dramatically with a Europa League defeat, not least because United will lose up to €60m in revenue as their €100m kit manufacturing deal is slashed and television revenue and prize money is cut.
One report this week even suggested Manchester United would row back on a plan to offer Mourinho an extended contract should his team fail to beat Ajax in Stockholm; so it’s possible the manager’s long-term future may come up for discussion if his gamble backfires and United, who finished a distant sixth in the Premier League, are condemned to another season of Thursday night football (and all the fixture congestion issues which go with it).
In reality, suggestions that United are unhappy with Mourinho are ludicrously wide of the mark.
He has already won the club one trophy this season, has a chance of another tonight, and, although the Premier League campaign was disappointing, it did include a 25-match unbeaten run in which only a propensity to draw home games prevented a happier ending.
There will be changes — big changes — at Old Trafford no matter the scoreline tonight, but nevertheless Europe’s bridesmaid trophy could have a huge impact on the pace and quality of that change and on the mentality of United’s team when they step out for the opening game of the 2017-18 season.
For a man who, during his early days at Chelsea, dismissed runners-up spot in the Premier League by saying that “being second is like being the first of the last”, there’s a delicious irony that winning Europe’s second trophy could be the key to his chances of creating a real legacy at Old Trafford in future.
If all goes well, that missing piece may just turn out be the most important…