It was a balmy summer evening in 2011 when Manchester United last played a European final. The Champions League’s marquee event was hosted at the Wembley Stadium, a site which had witnessed many triumphs for the Red Devils. However, on that day, Barcelona dished out a football lesson to United.
Manager Alex Ferguson had already been on the receiving end of the Catalan side’s brilliance when his own team had finished second-best in the 2009 final. As he remarked ahead of the 2011 clash, “They get you on the carousel and they make you dizzy with their passing.” Indeed, on United’s last appearance in a European final, Ferguson’s men were left dazed and confused.
But it was the legendary manager’s words in the aftermath of that resounding defeat which resonate deeply now, as the club readies itself to play its first Europa League final against Ajax later this month. Although his side’s morale was sapped that evening, Ferguson looked towards a hope-filled future.
“Over the years, we've done OK when confronted by things like this, and taking (Barcelona) on is another challenge. We've some very good players and, of course, where we start to find a way forward is something we'll mull over the summer. We're not lacking in ideas. Hopefully we'll come up with the right ones.”
We know now that the right ideas, even if they were posited, were never really put into practice. United collapsed out of the Champions League group stage the following season, Ferguson retired and the best the club could manage was a quarter-final appearance in David Moyes’s first season; a tie which once again separated the Red Devils from Europe’s elite as Bayern Munich ran out comfortable winners. However, this season, the trend of underwhelming European exits has been reversed. Manchester United, one of the traditional giants, is back in a continental final.
Of course, there is still a steep ladder to climb before Jose Mourinho can restore his side’s place in the upper echelons of European football. But contrast this with the unceremonious defeat to Liverpool in last season’s Europa League, at the round of 16 stage, and the nadir is nowhere to be seen right now. A victory over Ajax in Solna on 24 May will be the club’s second piece of silverware this term; one more than that arch-rival Liverpool have won in the last decade.
Mourinho’s record should inspire confidence. He has emerged victorious in 11 out of 13 finals and never lost one in 90 minutes. Yet, as Manchester United seek to win the only major honour it has never lifted, caution needs to be advised. This run to the final has seen Mourinho’s men sprint like a cramped hurdler. The obstacles have been rarely scaled with conviction. The inability to kill opponents off in moments of dominance jars against the memories of the ruthless United of old.
The group stage saw the Red Devils finish second to Fenerbahce, although last-minute nerves were avoided thanks to a comfortable win over Zorya Luhansk. However, United had to overcome choppier waters in the knockout rounds. There was a similar trajectory to ties after the round of 32 as the three-time European champion dominated the first leg but failed to gain a decisive advantage; the second legs at home brought nervy displays and disaster was just about averted.
Again on Thursday, Celta Vigo nearly stole a march on United. A more decisive opponent may have made their chances count and Mourinho alluded to the struggle in his post-match comments. “I am more than happy if we win the Europa League. It was so difficult, so hard for me this season, so if we manage to do that it will be amazing.”
Indeed, the Europe League gets a lot of bad rap — most of it, unfair — but over the past few seasons it has given the football world more to think about than it anticipated. Sevilla’s treble of wins in the competition was no mean feat as it foresaw the club’s emergence as a veritable force for a large part of this season’s La Liga campaign. More importantly, the Europa League continues to offer sides with genuine historical pedigree a chance to shine again on the continental stage.
Manchester United’s clash with Ajax in the final carries immense historical weight. The clubs have won a combined seven European Cups and even though they have suffered hard times lately, there is a glint of optimism right now. It certainly needs to be said that Ajax will be no pushover, going by the exciting brand of football advertised by its merry band of young footballers.
For United, though, there is more riding on the contest. While Ajax is already assured of a place in the Champions League qualifying rounds next season, Mourinho’s prioritising of continental football means that his side is unlikely to qualify for the elite tournament through the league route. Liverpool had adopted the same approach last season and a defeat in the final to Sevilla ensured there was no European football for the Merseyside club this season.
A League Cup title with an absence from the Champions League next term will be widely seen as a disappointment for United. However, Mourinho has chosen his path and it has served him well till now. If United reigns supreme in Sweden later this month, a couple of cups along with a return to the Champions League will demand appreciation.
After his side’s place in the final was confirmed, Mourinho did not forget to mention that a Europa League win would mean a chance to grab the European Super Cup next season. While the one-off tie is usually afforded just academic significance, the Portuguese manager is alive to the significance the contest holds. If United was to meet Juventus or Real Madrid in a competitive encounter, the Red Devils would once again be able to hold their seat among the European elite. The financial rewards are great but big clubs care much for their prestige.
And who knows, unlike that summer evening in 2011, United might be able to teach the European champion a thing or two.
Updated Date: May 12, 2017 12:16 PM