Manchester United has won the 2016/2017 UEFA Europa League by defeating Ajax 2-0.
It completes the set for United, the only trophy they had never won before, and changes the complexion of how their season will be remembered. Mourinho has now won 12 of his 14 finals as a manager, and two in one season is more than some of United’s rivals have managed in the last decade. He even tried to make a case it was even more, telling his players not to forget the Community Shield and instructing them to hold up three fingers as they waited to lift their latest prize.
It also means United will return to the Champions League next season but, more than anything perhaps, it also presented an opportunity to dedicate the prize to their city. Manchester won’t be healed by the loud, defiant songs and, yes, it was supposed to be a minute’s silence before the match rather than another opportunity to applaud and sing. In its own small way, however, there was still something deeply moving, uplifting even, about those chants, over and again, in honour of the city. “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester,” they sang.
The backdrop to this final had been difficult in the extreme but, as Mourinho stated, United had a job to do and they went about it with all the qualities that would usually be associated with one of his teams.
Granted, that does not mean the exhilarating football of the great United sides, leaving the Ajax coach, Peter Bosz, to make a number of pithy remarks about long-ball tactics and the difference in terms of size and physicality. That, however, feels like a debate for another day bearing in mind everything that happened in Manchester on Monday. “We want to dedicate it to all the victims,” Ander Herrera said. “The manager told us the only thing we could do was win it for them.”
It culminated with Wayne Rooney running on as a last-minute substitute so he was in place to lift the trophy that had come their way because of the goals from Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. If this was Rooney’s goodbye it was a nice way to go and none of those players cavorting about the pitch will care that Bosz called it a “boring game”. Mourinho made his own point. “There are many poets in football,” he said. “But poets – they don’t win many titles.”
The only downside came in the form of the Ajax fans who tore up seats at the final whistle and Herrera’s attempt to get an opponent sent off by pretending he had been felled by a headbutt. That apart, United can reflect on a hugely satisfactory night and Mourinho can hardly be blamed for taking advantage of the fact he had the bigger players.
United’s second goal was the case in point. Marouane Fellaini, such a difficult, awkward opponent, could not reach Juan Mata’s corner but his presence alone unsettled Ajax’s defenders. Chris Smalling was behind him to head the ball into the six-yard area and Mkhitaryan hooked in a clever, improvisational finish.
Ajax’s starting line-up had an average age of 22 years and 282 days, including six players of 21 or younger, and a 17-year-old in the centre of defence. What they did not have was big-match experience and their teenage striker, Kasper Dolberg, identified beforehand as one of their main dangers, lasted just over an hour before being substituted. As Posz admitted: “These young kids are not used to playing in finals.”
With the exception of Marcus Rashford, the same could not be said of the winning team and, crucially, United had luck on their side too. Pogba’s 18th-minute shot ought to have been a straightforward save for Andre Onana had the ball not taken ricocheted off Davinson Sánchez, the nearest defender.
Onana was already moving to his left when the deflection turned the ball towards the centre of the goal. The goalkeeper was stranded and Pogba had his most important, and fortuitous, goal since rejoining United last summer.
The strange part was that Mourinho was so impassive at that stage, hardly wearing the expression of a man who had just seen his team take the lead in a European final. The game was still in its early stages and as the first half wore on, it was Ajax who were playing the more creative and fluent game. Mkhitaryan’s goal was timed well, three minutes into the second half, and Mourinho’s demeanour had changed entirely by the end.