Paul Pogba leads Manchester United to emotional Europa League final victory and Champions League qualification
Paul Pogba led Manchester United to victory on an emotional night in Stockholm
It may mean so little compared to the tragedy of Monday but, as Paul Pogba so emotionally celebrated the goal that set Manchester United on the way to triumph in the Europa League, you could easily see how much it meant to the players; how much it meant to the club and how much it can mean for their city.
The most famous products of that city responded in the only way could, and in the way the club knows best: winning. The supporters meanwhile responded in the way they know best, by singing. “Manchester! Manchester!” came the defiant call from the end where Henrikh Mhitaryan sealed this 2-0 victory over what looked a hugely inexperienced Ajax.
If it still remains so incongruous to have the atrocity of Monday juxtaposed with the relative irrelevance of a mere football match on Wednesday, there can be no denying it means so much to United’s season too – as well as maybe the next few seasons.
It certainly made this campaign a qualified success, as they finally qualified for the Champions League again.
They also claimed silverware again, maintaining Jose Mourinho’s record of winning every continental final he’s ever played, and ensuring United have now become one of just five clubs – including Juventus, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and indeed Ajax – to win every historic European trophy.
The Portuguese’s big gamble this season paid off, even if he didn’t gamble too much in this relatively dull game. It was by no means a classic final, but that just didn’t matter. On this occasion, it really was just about the result, and bigger things than trophies.
The game actually saw a lot of patterns from the whole season, that it had so come to define and decide. United actually started off very well, and looked very much like they wanted to put in this grand performance, as they got right into Ajax and pushed them right back.
Pogba got United on their way (AFP)
There were even signs of naive nerves among Peter Bozs’s young side as the very first action of the game saw Andre Onana get into a mix-up with Joel Veltman. The goalkeeper could only watch as Juan Mata flashed a dangerous ball across goal on 10 minutes, and then Pogba powered a deflected effort past him on 18.
Picking the ball up on the edge of the Ajax area, the world-record signing tried a quick effort from distance that caught both Onana and Davinson Sanchez out, as his firm drive stuck the defender and flew into the centre of the net.
The emotion was all too clear, all too powerful as he pointed to the sky after the recent death of his father.
It was not the only way Pogba was leading the way. The midfielder had been winning a lot of balls, especially in the air, and seemed to personify how United were physically trampling all over this more callow and slighter Ajax side. It said much that the much-heralded Kasper Dolberg only got his first touch when tipping off after the goal.
dedicated his goal to his late father (
At that point, United seemed far too assertive, far too commanding… only to then inexplicably cede control. Well, inexplicably, but not unpredictably. As has happened so often this season, Mourinho’s side began to retreat and allow Ajax that bit more space, that Bertrand Traore was more than willing to try and exploit.
He embarrassed Pogba with one deft turn near the halfway line, and caused United more problems than anyone with repeated surges through the middle of the pitch. One of them saw him almost make it right to Sergio Romero’s goal, another a moment of tension as both he and Matteo Darmian went down in the box.
Mkhitaryan was one of the players who at that stage looked guiltiest of letting Ajax get back into it by letting them so often getting past him, and didn’t seem with it at all. It was actually a surprise that Mourinho did not take him off at half-time, but was also a decision almost immediately vindicated, as the Armenian showed the kind of improvisation and joy of playing that so lifts any side he plays for. It here lifted United to a 2-0 lead. Just moments after half-time, Chris Smalling headed the ball down from a corner and, with his back to goal and right up against Onana, Mkhitaryan somehow hooked it over the goalkeeper and in.
It was remarkable creativity, but also reflected a greater level of experience in the United side, a greater nous.
Mkhitaryan scored the all-important second goal (Getty)
Other than Traore, there were too many Ajax players showing their age. Too many of them had frozen, most notably Davy Klaassen and Dolberg, although the latter at least had the excuse of being completely isolated. It got so bad that Bosz eventually hauled him off for David Neres.
They still couldn’t get into the game. So, with that game against youth won, Mourinho decided to give one of United’s longest-serving players what might be his last appearance, as Wayne Rooney was introduced in stoppage time.
He was said to be one of the players most visibly affected by Monday, and it was difficult for some in the arena not to be affected by the emotion; by the context of it all.
“We’ll never die,” came the chant, as United lifted the only tribute they could to the sky.