It was not the Busby-inspired brilliance of Best and Charlton, nor a dramatic late victory in Fergie time, but Jose Mourinho’s side did what they needed to do in order to lift the Europa League trophy for the first time, qualify for the Champions League and, more importantly, give a much-needed morale boost to the devastated city of Manchester, writes Gerry Cox.
Goals from Paul Pogba and Henrik Mkhitaryan in each half were enough to see off an inexperienced Ajax side and seal United’s seat at Europe’s top table next season.
Football may have had to take a back seat after the shocking events at the Manchester Arena on Monday night, but United gave their supporters something to cheer in an emotional week.
A far from vintage performance lacked the last-minute drama of the Camp Nou in 1999 or United’s penalty shoot-out victory over Chelsea in Moscow nine years later, but Mourinho won’t care a jot.
As pragmatic as they come, the Portuguese is a coach who knows how to win trophies and this win extended his 100% record in European finals — two wins in each competition now.
Now he has captured two trophies in his first season at the helm of United, though the EFL Cup and Europa League are the least of the club’s expectations.
Mourinho has been brought to Old Trafford to win bigger prizes — the Premier League and Champions League — and this victory will go a long way to easing his path to bigger things.
For a start there is nothing like that winning feeling to inspire belief in the manager and make players hungry for more.
Perhaps more importantly, United’s return to the Champions League will give Mourinho considerably more clout in the transfer market as he attempts to assemble a team that can climb above the sixth-placed limbo they have spent most of the season in, as well as have a tilt at the Europa League’s big brother.
Antoine Griezmann is top of Mourinho’s shopping list, and much as the Frenchman appears willing to join, a move from Madrid to Manchester might have been harder to justify if United were not in the Champions League.
There will be more, for sure. United’s squad has been stretched by injuries in the latter part of the season, and the team that took the field against Ajax hardly had the swagger or stardust of past United sides.
Mindful of the Dutch side’s youth and slick play in their path to the final, Mourinho went for a solid rather than spectacular side.
Wayne Rooney was left on the substitutes’ bench until the final minute, when the game was won, and Michael Carrick was sacrificed for the physical presence of Marouane Fellaini.
Ajax fielded the youngest side to contest a final in the history of European competition and it showed, including 17-year-old centre-back Matthijs de Ligt, who made his opponent Marcus Rashford look like an old head.
Peter Bosz’s whole squad cost only around €45m, around a 10th of the money spent on assembling this current United squad and less than half the cost of Paul Pogba.
But the midfielder, whose father died barely a fortnight ago, stepped up when he was needed, opening the scoring with a shot that took a huge deflection off Davinson Sanchez to wrongfoot goalkeeper Andre Onana.
Pogba will claim it, of course, and played a major part in keeping the busy but ineffectual kids from Amsterdam at bay. Mkhitaryan made it 2-0 with a poacher’s goal early in the second half, and the large and noisy United contingent in the Friends Arena started to party, knowing there was no way back for Ajax.
Sergio Romero, in place of David de Gea in goal, barely had a save to make as United stood firm, while Jesse Lingard and Rashford had chances to make the margin of victory bigger.
Rooney went on for Juan Mata in the last minute, for his 559th and possibly final appearance in a United shirt, with most observers expecting him to leave Old Trafford this summer.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, back in his hometown, celebrated with his team-mates at the end, limping around as a legacy of the injury that ended his season prematurely. The Swede may join Rooney on the way out, too, but Pogba is here to stay and finally showed his value to the club.
The Frenchman also showed his understanding of what this victory means to the people of his adopted city and country, who have been mourning the devastating events this week. A minute’s silence preceded the game, noisy delight followed it, and Pogba struck the right tone when he said: “We won for them, we worked for them and played for the country, for England and Manchester, and for the people who died.”
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