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Ken Early: United clinch Europa League to salvage season

Jose Mourinho’s side back in Champions League after win over Ajax in Stockholm

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho leads the celebrations after the Europa League win over Ajax celebrate winning the Europa League at the Friends Arena in Stockholm. Photograph: Andrew Couldridge/Reuters/Livepic

Manchester United 2 Ajax 0

A season of false dawns and frustrations ended in deliverance for Manchester United, as they escaped the mediocrity of sixth place in the Premier League to qualify for the Champions League by winning the only trophy they had never won before.

Before this season Jose Mourinho had only spoken about the Europa League derisively – that it was a bad competition for a big club to be in, and so on. Last night the Europa League allowed him to salvage United’s season.

United can seldom have played many more pivotal games. Win and the season is redeemed, while next season promises a return to the big time. Lose and the season has been a failure, next season a disappointment before it begins. It’s not simply a question of prestige, but also hard cash: United’s players are paid less if they miss out on the Champions League. Some of their better-paid players had seven-digit sums at stake on this result.

That obviously produced a certain anxiety in the camp, which was evident in the demeanour of Mourinho, who spent much of the match pacing back and forth from dugout to sideline like a caged zoo animal. He reacted to the first goal by remaining motionless in his chair, but he grew increasingly animated as the game went on; in the last five minutes, with the result no longer in doubt, he was the most manic person in the stadium. At full-time, he rolled joyfully on the grass with his son, Jose Jr.

The game had not really been close, and yet it shouldn’t even have been as close as it was. This final pitted one of the biggest winners of the globalisation and financialisation of football against arguably the biggest losers. Two decades ago, Ajax could argue that they were a bigger club than United. They had four European Cups to the English side’s one. But every trend since then that has affected the economy of football – notably the explosive growth of TV rights revenues in the major markets, the EU rules on freedom of movement – has worked against them, and in United’s favour. United’s turnover is almost eight times that of Ajax.

Now Ajax have to forage to find players like Davinson Sanchez, the graceful Colombian centre back who kept Marcus Rashford quiet throughout the match. As an apex predator in football’s food chain, United don’t have to devote much brainpower to scouting. They simply buy the best players in Europe. Any casual fan could have identified Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan as good potential signings. These were the players who made the difference in Stockholm on Wednesday night.

Pogba got lucky with the deflection that carried his shot past the stranded Andre Onana, but Ajax could not afford to allow a player of his quality so much time and space to shoot from the edge of the box. Mkhitaryan’s goal was a poacher’s effort after Chris Smalling had won a header from a corner.

Ajax had reached the final by winning their home matches in style. Away from home, they had not been so convincing. Last night was almost like a home match: their fans were in good voice, and United sat deep and played reactively, like an away team. The problem for Ajax was that the team playing underdog football had better players all over the field.

Smalling winning the header for Mkhitaryan’s goal was emblematic of one key difference between the sides. United were taller and stronger: their players are mostly men in the prime of their careers, while Ajax’s are mostly boys at the outset of theirs.

If Ajax were going to outmanoeuvre opponents who were so much stronger and more experienced, they needed to move the ball very fast, and this proved beyond them on the night. There was too much ponderous passing at the back, and not enough passes into the danger areas. Kasper Dolberg, the much-hyped young Danish centre forward, touched the ball five times in the first half and was withdrawn early in the second having made no impact. Ajax’s failure to create even a chance of significance in the first half meant that United’s second goal instantly sapped what was left of their belief.

United, then, return to the Champions League, courtesy of a victory achieved with a deflection, a set piece, and 33 per cent of possession. Maybe the most telling statistic was that Ajax finished the match with nine blocked shots: testament to the defensive wall that shut out access to United’s penalty area as the match wore towards its conclusion.

This is the way Mourinho likes to win. It’s essentially Italian football of the old school, measured and clinical, not what many United fans would have identified as United football. The question is whether this is a kind of intermediate chrysalis phase; just a temporary solution that United need to adopt in order to reach the point where they can play more expansively. Might a side more in keeping with the traditions of Manchester United be primed to emerge?

You can see there is untapped potential in the side, and flashes of real quality – particularly when Pogba is carrying the ball forward with long elegant strides. Mkhitaryan has more to offer, and maybe this goal will help him to show it. The potential of Rashford can scarcely be overstated. And we can expect one or two more of the best players in Europe to arrive from the transfer market.

But these players will still be managed by Jose Mourinho. And this United side is already in keeping with his most basic belief about football: that it is a game of mistakes, won by the side that makes fewer mistakes. If this is how United play against opponents who resembled a Premier League club’s U21 side, you can easily imagine how they will play next season if they are drawn against Real Madrid or Bayern.

Not that United fans will be worrying too much about the likely pattern of potential matches next season against the giants of Europe. The only thing that matters today is that such matches are possible at all.