Manchester United pulled together in their city’s time of darkness, showing no little skill and spirit to overcome Ajax and win the Europa League.
Less than 48 hours after a terror attack killed 22 people and injured many more at Manchester Arena, the club’s fans, players and staff stood unbowed in Stockholm.
Football seems trivial at a time of such pain but United embraced the spirit shown in spades by the city they represent, with Jose Mourinho’s men winning the Europa League as goals from Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan secured a 2-0 triumph against Ajax.
United’s first continental trophy in nine years brings with it the welcome boon of Champions League qualification after a disappointing Premier League campaign, but more crucially a cathartic, if temporary, release for some.
Nerves were settled at the Friends Arena when Pogba – playing in his second match since his father Fassou Antoine died aged 79 – opened the scoring with a low shot that deflected in off Davinson Sanchez.
United’s goal was just reward for a bright start that soon tapered off, only for Mourinho’s men to return impressively from the break as Mkhitaryan directed home acrobatically.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ajax’s callow side – the youngest ever in a major European final – were unable to find a way back as United added to this season’s EFL Cup and Community Shield triumphs.
Europa League glory means United join Ajax, Bayern Munich and Juventus as the only clubs to have won all three major UEFA trophies, including the now-defunct European Cup Winners’ Cup, as well as the Club World Cup or the Intercontinental Cup.
But after a tragic few days for their city, most important was their victorious show of defiance that all connected to the club can be proud of.
Mourinho’s men stepped away from the brouhaha that normally surrounds the build-up and wore black armbands in Stockholm, where a minute’s silence quickly turned into applause.
Stockholm knows all too well the impact of such an attack as just last month five people were killed by a hijacked truck in the city centre, meaning security around the game had already been beefed up.
Armed police patrolled the perimeter of a ground that witnessed United’s 64th match of a draining campaign, with the Europa League taking them more than 15,000 miles.
There were surprisingly few signs of lethargy early on, though.
Pogba’s volley wide after 24 seconds was a shot across the bows for an Ajax defence dragged all over by Marcus Rashford.
The Dutch giants were relieved to see Juan Mata’s fizzing cross evade Marouane Fellaini before they flickered into life, with Sergio Romero, selected ahead of David De Gea, denying Bertrand Traore.
Yet hope was soon dampened as within minutes Ajax’s first major European final in 21 years became an uphill battle.
Neat play down the right ended with Pogba collecting the ball on the edge of the box. The Frenchman opened up his body and took a low 20-yard shot that deflected off Sanchez, wrong-footing goalkeeper Andre Onana and rippling the back of the net.
In our hearts. pic.twitter.com/O97mhkLsUW
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) May 24, 2017
United’s travelling hordes erupted as Pogba punched his chest, celebrating a goal that captain Antonio Valencia soon attempted to add to with a driving run and shot.
That was the last chance of note United would muster as Ajax began to settle, although dawdling Sanchez was fortunate not to be picked off by Rashford.
Daley Blind brought a timely end to a slaloming run by Traore as the Dutch side were afforded too much time in possession, but a lack of cutting edge meant they were unable to take advantage.
United re-grouped at the break and capitalised three minutes after the restart.
Chris Smalling rose to meet a corner from the right, heading on for Mkhitaryan to smartly lift into the roof of the net in front of United’s raucous support.
Any building tension was released and Ajax struggled to respond to the second-half sucker punch, with Fellaini trying to compound matters with a header saved by Onana.
Tempers began to fray on the touchline after a late Mata challenge, while substitute Jesse Lingard was denied a late goal by Sanchez’s recovery challenge.
Donny van de Beek was unable to truly test Romero as Ajax looked to claw back a consolation, but it was not to be for Amsterdam side.
Wayne Rooney came on for the dying embers and was handed the captain’s armband by Valencia, celebrating wildly with his team-mates at the final whistle.
In a week terrorism descended to a new low with the Manchester Arena murderous spree, football united to commemorate the 22 who died and 59 injured. This wasn’t the occasion for a minute’s applause, the 48 hour time-frame was far too raw, and both sets of fans impeccably respected the 60 seconds of silence preceding kick-off. The black armbands worn by both sides of players and the banners on view around the Friends Arena, mounted by United and Ajax fans, spoke volumes about widely this tragedy has touched. A couple of spicy tackles on the pitch apart, this contest was played in a sporting fashion befitting the tradition of both clubs.
Marcus Rashford showed last night why Manchester United fans shouldn’t be so deflated by the impending departures of Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimović. Still only 19, the local lad possesses both the physique and technique to develop into United’s attacking force for many years to come. Used mostly by Jose Mourinho from the bench, Rashford had sufficiently won trust of the Portuguese to squeeze out Rooney, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard for the striker’s slot on the biggest night of the season. Ajax’s rookie defence couldn’t handle the teenager and he made way with five minutes left having made his contribution.
This was not the way United’s record goalscorer wanted to bow out from his distinguished career at Old Trafford. The club captain was made wait until the final minute of the final to be introduced and the roar from the United faithful was as much an appreciation for his service of 13 years rather than anything he could contribute in such a limited timeframe. Rooney had been the fore in United’s glory days of winning the Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup but this season has seen him shifted further to the margins and on his way to a probable summer exit.
Ajax were supposed to be the team that would finally test United at the end of a Europa League campaign they got the rub of the green. Instead, the Dutch giants were a shadow of previous great teams wearing the famous white and red symbolised by the legendary Johan Cruyff. While they have marquee names such as Edwin van Der Sar and Dennis Bergkamp working behind the scenes, the quality on the pitch is simply not there to compete at the top table of European football. In the Swedish capital, they were well beaten by a United side hardly compared to some of their stellar teams of the past.
Manchester United Ratings
Sergio Romero – 7.
Needed to concentrate on a night of rare activity and remained alert. United fans feared the worst when Donny van de Beek cut into the box late on but he was equal to effort.
Antonio Valencia – 8.
Captain for the night, the right-back provided attacking support early and defensive solidity when Ajax mounted a late yet futile comeback. Produced a goal-line clearance in stoppage time.
Daley Blind – 8.
Up against his former club, Blind was calmness personified. Seldom troubled by Ajax’s blunt attack but made the resistance look easy as he’s done since he arrived at the start of last season.
Chris Smalling – 8.
For a player seemingly on his way out, Smalling was at his best, even setting up the second goal with his header. Took a whack on the head late on for his troubles.
Matteo Darmian – 7.
Was part of the rearguard which kept Ajax at bay and the Italian played his part with a number of timely tackles. May have saved himself from the summer cull.
Ander Herrera – 7.
Predictably steady rather than spectacular, the Spaniard was in the thick of things without imposing himself in the style of a traditional United powerhouse midfielder. Had plenty of chats with the referee.
Marouane Fellaini – 8.
Much maligned, fans saw the good and bad of Fellaini last night as he immersed himself in the occasion. Might have scored from Pogba’s cross but characteristically incurred a booking for a clumsy late tackle.
Paul Pogba – 7.
At the end of a difficult month for the Frenchman, his presence was evident from the start and he will deservedly take the credit for a goal that was badly needed to ease any United nerves.
Juan Mata – 7.
Could easily have been sent off for a nasty challenge on Matthijs De Ligt but that would have blighted another strong season for United. Did his job to perfection, keeping the possession in midfield nice and tidy.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan – 7.
Kept relatively quiet by his standard during the first half, the Armenian conjured a crucial piece of magic shortly after the restart by acrobatically turning Smalling’s downward header into the net.
Marcus Rashford – 7.
Nothing seems to faze the teenager and he delivered on the big occasion once again. Home-produced strikers of his calibre don’t come along very often in England, never mind at Manchester United, and he’s a big future ahead of him.
Jesse Lingard for Mkhitaryan (74 mins) – 6. Should have added a third with four minutes to go only to hesitate in front of goal.
Anthony Martial for Rashford (84 mins) – 6. Offered little on his cameo.
Wayne Rooney for Mata (90 mins) – 6. Only clearance was the sum of his input for the few minutes he got on the pitch.