When Manchester United walks on the field tomorrow to play Ajax in the Europa League finals, it would be the culmination of a series of fumbles and not a glorious march. It would be the saving grace to an underwhelming season that began with high hopes and the belief, once again, that United was ready and able to play and win like the Ferguson era.
Unlike previous seasons, these hopes were justified: three marquee signings and another signing that although not popular among the average football watcher, had garnered the plaudits of pundits and a manager that was a proven winner with many points to prove.
With typical United arrogance, the Europa League, with its Thursday schedule and long-distance travel to some of Europe’s least exciting grounds was deemed an unnecessary competition, a distraction from the real deal: winning the English Premier League.
Although Mourinho had claimed that United was in the Europa League to win it, his first team selection in United’s opening fixtures revealed his true assessment of the league. United then fielded Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo, Morgan Schneiderlin, Memphis Depay, Ashley Young, and Marcus Rashford, players who were not starters at that point in the season. They were not players Mourinho particularly fancied. Hence, the Europa League was a place to give them minutes and assess their fit in his strategic plan.
United lost 1-0 to Feyenoord in their opening game. They finished second in the group, one point behind Fenerbahce.
Domestically, the early season optimism had become cotenants with reality. United, with three losses and six draws before the Christmas break, was essentially ruled out of contention for the title. Mourinho’s former team, Chelsea, who beat United 4-0 in October, were destined to be the champions. For United, the focus had turned to a less ambitious option: finish in the top four and secure a Champions League spot.
Europa lurked in the horizon, still not considered worthy of full-time pursuit. But a few more draws and Chelsea and Tottenham’s ruthlessness meant United were fighting for the third or fourth spot. That too became less sure as the season progressed, with what seemed liked United unwillingness to leave the sixth spot by failing to capitalize on missteps by those around them on more than four occasions.
In Europa, United kept crossing hurdles, with grit more than elegance. A comfortable dispatch of St. Etienne, followed a hard-earned qualification against FC Rostov, who will only be remembered for the sorry state of their pitch. Around United, big teams dropped, paving the way for a United swoop, but many were only interested in the title to complete a treble (after winning the EFL Cup in February), not as an accolade worthy of drunken boasts. The goal was a top 4 finish, but that was hamstrung by repeated draws.
By Easter, United had its eggs in one basket for Champions League qualification and had narrowed its ambition to a double, after losing to Chelsea in a controversial FA Cup quarterfinals.
The Europa League had transformed— proverbially— from the rejected stone into the cornerstone.
For a side relying on the Europa League to reach the UEFA League, United’s performances were baffling. They failed to kill off Anderlecht in the first leg of the title and had to go into extra time in the return fixture to secure qualification. It was Marcus Rashford, once consigned to cameo roles, who carried his team. Zlatan Ibrahimović’s injury catapulted the Englishman to United’s main striker and he will assume that responsibility in Stockholm tomorrow night.
United’s season had already received less than favorable post-mortems, with pundits castigating Mourinho for his overly defensive approach as a betrayal of the fabled United Way, his countless draws and his public feuds with his players as reasons for a generally poor season.
The Portuguese simply blamed fatigue, an autopsy that concealed many structural inflexibility in his approach to the game, his fondness for caution over adventure, and at times very bizarre team selection and personnel deployment.
In the semi-final against Celta Vigo, United’s toughest test until then, Mourinho sounded like a broken record with his complaints about fatigue, but he knew there was no time for excuses. He showed up when it mattered. United was dominant away, but again failed to but the tie to bed. Back in England, United scored early thanks to Fellaini. The tie, in theory, was put to bed, but Celta Vigo needed two goals to qualify on the away goal rule. United kept them at bay until the closing minutes. A goal and an Eric Bailly red card encouraged the visitors. It was a nervous ending that could have ended United’s season. They survived a last-minute scare.
United has fielded weakened sides in domestic fixtures to rest their more senior players ahead of Ajax. Many players from the Academy were handed debuts during this time, out of necessity, not out of a genuine belief, I believe, in the power of youth, although Mourinho handed many young players time at Old Trafford this season.
United should be comfortable against Ajax, a youthful squad that is not the most defensively compact. United will be without Eric Bailly, leaving many to guess the center-back pairing. Romero, Valencia, Herrera, Pogba, and Rashford are guaranteed starters. Lingard and Mkhitaryan could start. Rooney and Martial will not.
Mourinho will be comfortable. He lives for the big moments and with one of his job deliverables—Champions League qualification—resting on it, he knows there will be no room for excuses, especially fatigue.
The Europa League has come full-circle for United. When the players make their way on the long stairway to collect their medals, the United fans, true to tradition, will sing “Glory, glory Man United as the reds go marching on.”
But they know the road to Stockholm was anything but a glorious march of saints.