Manchester United takes on Ajax almost six years to the day since the Reds last European final – few could have predicted that the face of the club would have changed so dramatically in the intervening time. The Reds’ 3-1 “hiding”- as Sir Alex Ferguson put it – at the hands of Barcelona in 2011 marked the natural end of a successful period in the team’s history. Could another one begin in Stockholm on Wednesday night?
United would win only one more trophy before Ferguson’s retirement sparked a period of upheaval, the likes of which the club had not seen for a generation. Wednesday’s Europa League final is a far cry from the glamour of the Champions League, but for José Mourinho and his players it now holds an importance far greater than any footballing outcome. Indeed, the events of the past 36 hours in Manchester have completely changed the context in which this game will be played, although it is the right decision that it still goes ahead.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]The narrative was about salvaging a frustrating 2016/17 season, qualifying for the Champions League and about adding the one missing trophy. All of that pales into insignificance now.[/blockquote]
The narrative around this final was about salvaging a frustrating 2016/17 season, about qualifying for the Champions League and about adding the one missing trophy to the Old Trafford cabinet. All of that pales into insignificance following the atrocity in Manchester city centre on Monday evening.
Mourinho himself acknowledged that it is “impossible to take out of our minds and our hearts the victims and their families,” as he released a statement after United decided to cancel its pre-match press conference. The manager would have undoubtedly had to address the tragic situation in the city, and to discuss such matters before being grilled on whether he intended to park the bus against Ajax would have been jarring for all involved. Mixing reaction to heart-wrenching cruelty with a game of football was something that the club obviously felt wasn’t appropriate so soon after the attack.
Mourinho did point out that United still “have a job to do”, but that task now carries an extra psychological burden. Indeed, the biggest challenge for the manager may not revolve around tactics but in ensuring his players are fully focused on the task ahead. No matter how much the players are urged to concentrate solely on the football, they will be aware that the eyes of the world are on them as representatives of not only of the club, but of Manchester.
Such is human nature, the team will want to perform as tribute to the city and to show that football, now also a target for terrorism following last month’s attack on the Borussia Dortmund team bus, will carry on unbowed. Reports have emerged throughout the day that the players are determined to do just that, something that is testament to their professionalism. But it is a difficult position for them to be in, everything that had previously meant so much about this game is now largely irrelevant, yet it is has taken on a symbolic significance that will be hard to deal with.
That the final is to be held in Stockholm, where five people died last month after a truck was driven into a crowd on a busy street, adds yet another layer to an already emotionally charged evening. As they always are, the travelling support will still undoubtedly be in fine voice, and to be so is not to belittle what has happened but to show that football, and life in general, will carry on in spite of the horror.
And so Mourinho will lead those players into the final at the Friends Arena as they seek to create some positivity in an awful week for the city. Even before the squad’s final training session was opened with a minute’s silence, preparation for this fixture has not been ideal. Mourinho’s approach to recent matches has done little to generate momentum as United surrendered meekly to both Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur before the kids salvaged some pride against Crystal Palace on Sunday. Eric Bailly got himself incomprehensibly sent-off in the closing stages of a nerve-jangling semi-final against Celta Vigo and will join the injured Marcos Rojo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the stands.
No-one is really sure what United’s best line-up or formation is, and few players come into the game in top form. Not to mention that a young Ajax side, which has stormed its way through the competition, awaits. It looks a daunting task for United, but Mourinho’s team has rarely done what has been expected this season. It makes this final all the harder to predict.
Early indications suggest Marouane Fellaini will start ahead of Juan Mata, which hints at how Mourinho intends to deploy his side. Jesse Lingard, the boss’ man for the big occasion, was withdrawn early at the weekend, further suggesting that the Portuguese manager will opt for pragmatism over panache.
Ajax will set out to attack, as Peter Bosz side has done throughout the tournament. Mourinho has not displayed a willingness to go toe-to-toe with such sides this season. He will look to nullify Ajax’ threat before drawing on United’s greater experience and physical presence; perhaps relying on the brilliance of individuals to carry the team to victory. It will be a game plan unlikely to convert any of his critics, but if the Reds are to return to Manchester with a trophy in tow will anyone really care?
In the end, a long shadow has been cast over what was already the most significant of the three post-Ferguson cup finals, but it is a shadow that players and fans on both sides can lift by displaying the kind of unity that Monday’s horror was intended to destroy.
United: Romero; Valencia, Jones, Blind, Darmian; Herrera, Pogba, Fellaini; Lingard, Rashford, Mkhitaryan
Subs from: De Gea, J. Pereira, Smalling, Fosu-Mensah, Tuanzebe, Carrick, Rooney, Mata, Martial
Ajax: Onana; Veltman, Sanchez, d. Ligt, Sinkgraven; Klaasen, Schone, Ziyech; Traore, Dolberg, Younes
Subs from: Cillesen, Riedewald, Westermann, Dijks, Gudelj, v.d. Beek, Ghezi, Nerez, Kluivert, Cerny
Referee: Damir Skomina
Assistant Referees: Jure Praprotnik, Robert Vukan
Additional Assistants: Matej Jug, Slavko Vinčić
Fourth Official: Gianluca Rocchi (Italy)
United 2-2 Ajax (United win on penalties)