This season, as has been the story of every season since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure, has been long and at times difficult for supporters of Manchester United. Some players have left, club legends’ time appear to be over, and League form, which for the most part has been average, has not exceeded such expectations. Positive signs have happened, however. Players like Pogba, Ibrahimovic, Mkhitaryan and Bailly were brought in. The season began with silverware with the Community Shield win over Leicester in August. United started the season well but form dipped soon after and the team spent November to March in sixth, finally breaking into fifth after Arsenal’s form slipped. 25 games unbeaten is impressive, but, as has been discussed at length in this weekly blog, so many points were dropped in draws, especially at home. United lost to Arsenal and this weekend again to Tottenham, all but ensuing a sixth place finish, barring upsets in Arsenal’s calendar.
Through all this, however, United lifted the EFL Cup trophy, made it to the quarter-final of the FA Cup and are through to the Europa League final in Stockholm on 24 May. The team needs rebuilding, that’s for sure. Rumours have been circulating for months about possible bids made for James Rodriguez, Antoine Griezmann and others like Bernardo Silva, Raphael Varane, Viktor Lindelof and Jan Oblak. United will certainly spend money this summer, but first, Mourinho must lift the Europa League trophy to send the club back to the Champions League.
Just how much would winning this competition mean for the club? Not only would winning the Europa League mean a return to Champions League football, which supporters and the owners alike want to see at Old Trafford next season, but it also means another trophy for the Club and one that Manchester United has never won in its history. Winning this competition would also mean that United lifted three trophies in Mourinho’s first season at the Club: Community Shield, EFL Cup, and Europa League. Even though United are likely to finish the season in a paltry sixth place, three trophies in a season is not a bad haul and will certainly attract talent come the transfer window.
United are also the only English club remaining in European competition. Manchester City, Arsenal, Leicester, and Tottenham were all knocked out in the quarter-finals or earlier and Premier League champions Chelsea and third-placed Liverpool did not have European competition this season. For these reasons, and others, the United squad has been pushed to the limits this season. Mourinho is right when he says he cannot field the best squad possible every match, especially in the last week, when United faced Arsenal and Spurs away on either side of a Europa League semi-final. With players like Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger leaving the club, plus long-term injuries to Zlatan, Rojo, Shaw, Fosu-Mensah and Ashley Young, the boss was left with few options. With top four out of the realm of possibility, he’s right to focus on the Europa League final.
United, of course, had to get to the final the hard way. Despite going up 2:0 early on in the match with Fellaini’s headed goal courtesy of a sublime Rashford cross, United could not kill the match, despite good chances. Sergio Romero was busy at the other end, keeping United in the match but was unable to stop a late Celta goal to make things interesting. Had Celta been able to score once more, it would be the Gallician side that would be going to Stockholm, but the boys dug in deep and managed to hold on, in spite of Bailly being sent off for aggression late-on. Unfortunately, he will miss the final in a blow to Mourinho’s plans.
Ajax will be the opponent in Stockholm on 24 May. Their last game of the season was yesterday which they won, but they fell short of winning the Dutch title to Feyenoord, who also were victorious. As Mourinho opined, the Dutch-side now have 12 days to prepare for the final, whereas United still have two League games to play against Southampton and Crystal Palace. The boss has already indicated that the team he plays against Palace will bear very little resemblance to the one that plays in Stockholm. The priority is Europe.
Lastly, a quick recap of the Premier League game against Tottenham in their final game ever at White Hart Lane. As expected, Mourinho rested players like Pogba, Valencia, Mkhitaryan, Herrera and Rashford (the latter three coming on as subs in the second half) but was able to play Bailly with his European suspension. Spurs, currently second in the table, scored in the sixth minute from a corner but United stayed in the match through the first half, with Martial looking the most dangerous in front of Lloris’ goal. The hosts then scored early in the second half, again from a corner but United were able to respond in the 70th minute with good link-up play between Martial and Rooney. The goal turned out to not be able to inspire more, as Spurs were able to see out the 2:1 victory and solidify second spot.
United have two League matches to play: Southampton away on 17 May and Crystal Palace at Old Trafford on 21 May. To build momentum to the Europa League final, two wins would certainly be welcome. Check back next Monday for end-of-season reaction and a preview to the Europa League final.