After a long moment of silence to reflect on Monday’s terrorist attack in Manchester that killed 22 and injured more than 100, the city’s own Manchester United lifted the Europa League trophy on Wednesday. It claimed Europe’s second-tier continental tournament in a 2-0 victory over Ajax Amsterdam in Stockholm.
The final was overshadowed by the events of a few days earlier and there had even been talk of postponing the game. The game went ahead and was largely uninteresting, decided by a deflected Paul Pogba shot and a short-range Henrikh Mkhitaryan flick either side of halftime.
It was, in essence, a final between a club that wanted to win and one that needed to win. One between a club that was glad to be there and one that deigned to. The game plainly meant more for Ajax, which has spiraled far down from its early-1970s and mid-90s heydays. It was a nostalgic taste of its former glory, when the four-time European champions mattered. To United, it was less a prize than a ticket into next year’s Champions League, even though the club – unlike Ajax – had never before won the Europa League, or its UEFA Cup predecessor.
To Ajax, the game was an event, as evidenced by the enormous crowd that showed up to watch the game in Amsterdam’s Museumplein.
To United, it was a glorified qualifier, as clearly evidenced by manager Jose Mourinho’s utterly unmoved reaction to Pogba’s opening goal. The Portuguese may not even have blinked. While the players celebrated following the game, that was likely because it meant a return to the European summit next season.
The game was typically drab for a European final. Even if the Europa League has a reputation for producing far more interesting games than the Champions League, United sat in after an aggressive opening. Once the goal was on the board, the Red Devils turned cynical. And the young Ajax attackers didn’t quite have the wherewithal to break down Mourinho’s tightly-packed lines.
United had the first chance. A broken play sent the ball bouncing high, but Juan Mata suddenly whipped it across the box where it almost found Marouane Fellaini’s enormous head.
A quarter of an hour in, Ajax first stirred. Amin Younes wriggled free up the left for the first of several times and set up Bertrand Traore, but the latter’s shot was saved simply by Sergio Romero.
Three minutes later, a high free throw for United circulated among its players before Pogba discovered some room at the edge of the box and fired off a shot. It took a viciously spinning deflection off Davinson Sanchez and wrong-footed Andre Onana, sailing into the net.
Ajax got to make the play as United was happy to defend, but couldn’t find striker Kasper Dolberg or much room centrally to forge a route through. Mourinho estimated, correctly, that a negative game plan, as so often, would succeed in preserving the goals against an inexperienced Ajax.
Soon after halftime, United killed the game off. Chris Smalling knocked down a corner and Mkhitaryan’s falling, overhead back-to-goal flick beat Onana a second time.
United slowed down the pace, and while Ajax occasionally managed to encircle the other penalty area, it seldom found enough room to get shots off from within reasonable shooting range besides a late look for Donny van de Beek. The Red Devils didn’t produce a whole lot else either, with Fellaini most notably putting a header right at Onana.
Ajax may have finished the game with two-thirds of possession and an 17-6 shooting edge – while completing 86 percent of passes to United’s 68 – but it put just three shots on target and had nine blocked. In truth, Ajax never got terribly close to scoring. An impossibly young team was ultimately outgunned by a veteran side.
United slumped to a disappointing sixth-place finish in the Premier League this season, meaning the Europa League beckoned for a second year in a row. In recent weeks, its only hope of avoiding that sorry fate was to win the thing and claim a direct berth for next season’s Champions League. That Europa League victory now comes not just with a big, shiny silver vase but also with an entry ticket into a different tournament, and it probably says all you need to know about how the event is regarded these days.
But it meant something to Ajax. More than it apparently did to United, which is just trying to get back to the top of the global pile. For Ajax, it was a return to relevance. Its young team has the potential to get back here again but surely won’t. Because of the economic realities that induced the club’s slow decline in the first place.
The very same realities that made this a simple victory for Manchester United’s much more seasoned stars and got them to where they believe they belong next year: the Champions League.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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