Manchester United claimed a third trophy of the season and a first ever UEFA Europa League triumph thanks to goals in either half from Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan and while this victory marked a superb end to a long campaign, for many reasons it meant so much more.
Yes, it completes United’s set of all-time silverware; yes, it puts the Reds back in the Champions League next season, but most importantly this was a success dedicated to the people of Manchester following the most tragic of events in the city 48 hours earlier.
The opening strike was a particularly poignant moment for Pogba too. The Frenchman, arguably the Reds’ best player in the opening half, lost his dad just over a week ago and he pointed to the heavens after seeing his deflected effort sail in. The second was a historic one for the club as Mkhitaryan netted his fifth European goal away from Old Trafford – the biggest such tally from one United player in a single season.
The build-up to the game had, of course, been dominated by Monday’s terrible tragedy in Manchester which was uppermost in everyone’s minds throughout the stay in Stockholm. A minute’s silence which turned into applause for our great city and then shouts of ‘Manchester la la la’ preceded kick-off with the United players donning black armbands in tribute to the victims.
On the pitch, Mourinho stayed true to his word about playing Sergio Romero in goal and his big decision in defence, over who would replace the suspended Eric Bailly, resulted in Chris Smalling getting the nod ahead of Phil Jones. In attack, Juan Mata was preferred ahead of Jesse Lingard, who was named on the bench and the man whose goal ultimately sent United into the final, Marouane Fellaini, took up a more advanced role in the no.10 spot behind Marcus Rashford.
United pressed from the off with Paul Pogba taking aim on 27 seconds after Andre Onana had made a hash of what looked like an easy take, but the ball dropped wide. Pogba was involved again on 10 minutes when his neat flick found Mata who volleyed a driven cross into the box, but Fellaini couldn’t connect.
Ajax had had little of the ball up to that point, but Romero had to be alert to a sharp shot from Bertrand Traore in the box.
United’s early dominance got its just reward on 18 minutes when Mata knocked a ball inside from the right to Fellaini. He in turn found Pogba who netted his second goal in as many games as his left-foot shot took a huge deflection off Davinson Sanchez and looped in past the helpless Onana.
Six minutes later Valencia powered down the right wing and struck a fierce drive but the Ajax shot-stopper stood tall and beat it away.
Possession: Ajax 65% United 35%
Shots: Ajax 6 United 4
Shots on target: Ajax 1 United 2
Corners: Ajax 2 United 0
Ajax might have ended the first period on top, but it was Mourinho’s men who started the second half in the best possible way as Mkhitaryan made history. A Mata corner was headed down by Smalling and the Armenian attacker brilliantly hooked the ball home to put United very much in the driving seat.
The Reds continued to press and look for a third and on 65 minutes the outstanding Fellaini rose to meet a cross from Pogba, but could only put the ball straight at Onana.
Ajax were left with little choice but to go for it but United held firm with the whole back four exceptional in their defensive duties.
Lingard had a chance to make it 3-0 on 87 minutes, and to add to his personal collection of cup final goals, when fellow substitute Anthony Martial put him through, but he just lost his footing at the vital moment.
It mattered little though as the Reds claimed a famous win as ‘Manchester, Manchester, Manchester’ echoed around the stadium, and you felt it could be heard all the way back to our inspirational city.
Ajax: Onana; Veltman, Sanchez, de Ligt, Riedewald (de Jong 81); Schone (van der Beek 70), Klaassen (c), Ziyech; Dolberg (Neres 62), Traore, Younes.
Subs not used: Boer, Tete, Westermann, Kluivert.
Booked: Veltman, Younes, Riedewald.
United: Romero; Valencia (c), Smalling, Blind, Darmian; Herrera, Fellaini; Mkhitaryan (Lingard 74), Pogba, Mata (Rooney 90); Rashford (Martial 84).
Subs not used: De Gea, Fosu-Mensah, Jones, Carrick.
Booked: Mkhitaryan, Fellaini, Mata.