Deadly bomb attack in Manchester killed 22 people
Man Utd players wore black armbands
Club wins Europa League for first time
Manchester is a city in mourning and so the meaning of Manchester United’s Europa League final against Ajax Wednesday changed significantly in the two days since the suicide bombing which killed 22 people and injured many more.
At the Friends Arena in Stockholm, a United fan held aloft a poster which read: “Come on United, do it for Manchester.” And they did, beating their Dutch opponents 2-0.
Paul Pogba, the world’s most expensive footballer and a man who, less than a fortnight ago, lost his father to a long-term illness, gave United the lead with a 25-yard deflected strike.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan, another expensive summer purchase, hooked the ball home from six yards to double United’s lead and secure the English side a first Europa League title and a place in next season’s Champions League.
A sixth-place finish in the English Premier League meant United had to win this match if they wanted to secure Champions League qualification.
Not only will Jose Mourinho’s men be playing among Europe’s elite next season, benefiting from the prestige and financial rewards that will bring, but the club has now completed its collection of major trophies.
United are now only the fifth club – alongside Ajax, Chelsea, Juventus and Bayern Munich – to have won all three European trophies.
“If we could, we would obviously change the people’s lives for this cup, immediately,” Mourinho told reporters.
“We wouldn’t think twice. Does this cup make the city of Manchester a little bit happier? Maybe. But we just came to do our job.
“We came without the happiness we should bring with us, because when you come for these big matches you come happy, you come proud. And we didn’t. we just came to do our job.”
Not a time to critique performance
Last week there was talk that this match would determine the success of Mourinho’s first season in charge at Old Trafford.
The only manager in United’s history to win a trophy in his first season – his team won the League Cup in February and Community Shield in August – Mourinho concludes the campaign with three trophies.
But win or lose, with the identities of those who lost their lives on Monday continuing to be released, now would not have been the time to critique the team’s performance.
In Stockholm, a city recovering from its own terrorist atrocity after a stolen truck was driven into pedestrians on a busy shopping street, killing five, the consensus was that the pre-match mood was somber.
A minute’s silence held before the match turned into a minute’s applause and United’s players wore black armbands in tribute to those who had been killed and injured in Monday’s terrorist attack.
The squad celebrated their victory joyfully, with cries of “ole! ole!”
Cheers echoed around the arena as the club’s captain Wayne Rooney, who came on as a second-half substitute, lifted the club’s latest trophy aloft.
“We played for the people who died,” Pogba told BT Sport.
“These things are terrible all over the world, in London and in Paris,” added the French international, who was also playing at the Stade de France on the night of the November 2015 Paris terror attacks.
“We went out focused to win and we won for Manchester and the country.
Ajax below par
With an average age of 22 years and 282 days, Ajax named the youngest side ever to start in a major European final. In defender Matthijs de Ligt, aged 17 and 285 days, they also had the youngest player to feature in a European final.
Peter Bosz’s men had sparkled in this competition on their way to the final, playing in a manner the coach describes as the “Ajax way” – pressing quickly, passing swiftly.
Bosz, in his first season, has revived the club – although they did finish second in the Dutch top flight – and is preaching the principles which originate from Johan Cruyff, the club’s former player and coach.
But Ajax were disappointing against a United side which defended smartly to stifle their opponents.
Despite enjoying greater possession, Bosz’s inexperienced team struggled in what was the club’s first European final since 1996.
Their most significant move came with a weaving run by the on-loan Chelsea striker Bertrand Traore, but it came to an end inside the box after a Daley Blind challenge.
Once Chris Smalling directed Blind’s corner towards Mkhitaryan for the Armenian to score his sixth Europa League goal of the season early in the second half, a United victory felt inevitable.
Marouane Fellaini came close to a third goal for United, but his header from Pogba’s delicious cross went straight at Andre Onana.
However, two goals proved enough for Mourinho’s men on a difficult evening.