In the most painful of weeks for their city, Manchester United provided a fitting tribute on Wednesday by winning the Europa League with one of their most clinical performances of the season.
The 2-0 win over Ajax came less than 48 hours after the terrorist attack which claimed 22 lives at the Manchester Arena, but United’s players deserve all the plaudits that come their way for their response in the face of adversity.
Paul Pogba, himself coming to terms with the recent death of his father, was wonderful all night and scored United’s crucial first goal. Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s second soon after half-time allowed the hordes from the north-west of England to celebrate both their team and their city without the nervous tension which has engulfed many of their fixtures this season.
It felt like Ajax’s fluid, attacking style of play actually played into United’s hands in the end as the space they left in behind allowed Jose Mourinho’s side to finds the gaps in which they revel. What is certain is that United felt destined to win even before Pogba opened the scoring.
As Pogba pointed to the skies after finishing off a fine team move with a deflected 20-yard effort, the emotion poured out both on the pitch and in the stands. When Mkhitaryan followed up with number two there was no less sentiment. It just felt right that this was to be United’s night.
Mourinho made a decision some weeks ago to apply his team’s focus to the Europa League in their race for a Champions League spot next term. It was a determination which courted plenty of attention, with the risk of resting United’s hopes on a single game causing concern for some.
Certainly, as the ball was cut back for John Guidetti in United’s close shave against Celta Vigo a fortnight ago, it looked as though Mourinho might have put his eggs in the wrong basket. But with this big-game performance on the most pressurised of occasions, United justified their manager’s faith.
Pogba turned in one of his most complete performances in a United shirt, Ander Herrera played a captain’s knock at the base of midfield, Marouane Fellaini was a man mountain at times, and the defensive pairing of Chris Smalling and Daley Blind dealt admirably with everything thrown at them. If United had played anything like this well for much of the season, then Champions League football could well have been assured long before they arrived in Stockholm.
But this was the perfect end to a long, difficult season. Manchester United are back in the European competition most befitting of the club’s name. What’s more, they have given Manchester something to hold onto in the most trying of times.