Manchester United claimed the Europa League title for the first time in their history last night with a 2-0 victory over Ajax at the Friends Arena in Stockholm.
This was a game that meant a huge amount to Manchester United. It booked their place in next year’s Champions League, it validated all of the limp performances in the league run-in, it meant that the season could be looked back on favourably. A double of the League Cup and a European trophy are more than most teams can ever hope to achieve, (although some people, Mourinho included seem to be counting the Community Shield as a trophy now. It isn’t, it wasn’t a treble). But perhaps most importantly it provided some respite from the tragic attack that devastated Manchester earlier in the week. It won’t solve anything or heal anything but it’s a positive and the defiant cries of the travelling supporters and post match dedications from the players were a tribute to the city of Manchester.
Ajax for their part gave everything we expected from this young side, they were bright and energetic, they passed the ball well and were unafraid to take the game to United. One slaloming run from Bertrand Traoré and a fine shot on 16 minutes stand out in particular but this was about as far they could go in this competition. For now anyway.
There is no doubt that they are a very talented group of players. They dominated possession for large parts of the first half and were quick to close down United’s midfield when ever they did lose the ball but it’s also fair so say that they were also a little naive at times and it was Manchester United’s experience that made the difference. For all their busy work, they were undone by a solid Jose Mourinho side who looked dangerous when ever they broke forward on the counter attack.
United’s first came after 18 minutes via a wicked deflection from a Paul Pogba shot that, though on target, didn’t look as though it was going to trouble the ‘keeper. The ball spun off the calf of Davinson Sánchez, leaving Onana stranded. Pogba raced away, the United bench cleared as the staff all celebrated, all except Mourinho that is. He would have been relieved, Ajax were getting a foothold in the game and when teams have been allowed to exert their styles on to United this year, they have often been found wanting.
It was a blow to Ajax but they kept at it, knocking the ball around and trying to work their way through the well organised United defence. Going in at 1-0 both sides would have been reasonably content but it wasn’t long before the game was all but over. Mkhitaryan, who was actually fairly poor on the night, sealed the victory just after the break. Mata’s corner found Smalling who’s downward header bounced up in front of the Armenian and his clever improvised finish, poked over his shoulder and beyond Onana, sparked more wild celebrations in the stands and around the pitch.
Ajax didn’t throw in the town at this point but they didn’t have the experience to find a way back in to the game and, save for a few half chances, United were able to see the game out comfortably, even bringing on Wayne Rooney in the dying moments to give him the opportunity to lift the trophy and offer him (potentially) a fitting farewell.
The final whistle saw United’s injured players hobble and hop on to the pitch to join the party, Mourinho was throwing his son in the air, then was thrown himself by his staff, it was a joyous moment but perhaps even more it was a moment of relief, for a team, a manager, a club and a city that desperately needed a win.
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