Despite having a disappointing season for the most part, with many pundits slamming their overly defensive tactics, Manchester United have the chance to finish the season with two trophies. The first of these, the League Cup, was won back in February at Wembley with a 2-1 victory over Southampton. The second is the Europa League, a competition usually not taken seriously by English managers and teams in recent years with many opting to field weakened sides and give younger players a chance as they focus on their league campaigns as it comes with the added disadvantage of having to play on a Thursday night. However, the addition of qualification to Europe’s top tier of competition, the Champion’s League, for the following season as the reward for winning the tournament, has led to United’s manager, Jose Mourinho, electing to focus on winning this tournament at the expense of trying to qualify for the Champion’s League by finishing in the top four in the Premier League.
With the Final of this competition in Stockholm approaching in the coming days, the question on many fans lips is whether Manchester United can beat an Ajax side that is full of exciting young talents, coached by former great Dutch players such as Dennis Bergkamp and Edwin Van Der Sar, to claim the title, the only trophy the club has yet to win. A few seasons ago, there would have been few who would have doubted their ability, now though many are divided. Their recent form would suggest they may struggle, having not won a game in four, losing to both Arsenal and Tottenham in recent weeks and drawing with Celta Vigo and Southampton, a series of results which prevents them from being able to finish in the top four and earn an automatic place in next seasons Champions League.
Mourinho has in recent weeks, expressed his frustration at the amount of games the club has to play adding that ‘in this moment the Premier League, for us, is just matches we don’t want to play.’ He stated that ‘nobody can play two big competitions with 15 players and this is what we have at this time.’ However, many fans will argue that the fifteen players he has at his disposal are good enough players to compete on two fronts, a sentiment echoed by Jamie Redknapp after their disappointing 0-0 draw with Southampton on Wednesday night. ‘When you look at the United team and Jose says he is struggling for players, that team cost about £260m, I would want a lot more.’, said Redknapp on Wednesday night as he was in the Sky Sports studio It could be argued that injuries are a part of every team and that teams have competed on multiple fronts in the past with several injuries.
Many pundits have slammed Mourinho and his tactics in recent weeks. After their 2-1 defeat to Arsenal, former United player turned pundit, Gary Neville voiced his frustration at United having dropped crucial points at home this year to ‘stupid teams’. After their defeat to Southampton on Wednesday night, Redknapp said that United have had a “disappointing and pedestrian season”, claiming that ‘the Man Utd fans would want more – more excitement and more attacking football.’ He added that ‘watching United is hard work at the moment, it was hard at the weekend [against Tottenham] and hard work again today.’ After their defeat to Arsenal two weeks ago, former Liverpool player, Graeme Souness said that ‘if you set out to play like that, the first thing you are doing is handing the initiative to the other team’.
Several United players have underperformed this season with the majority of goals coming from just two players, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, now injured, and Juan Mata, who has just returned from injury. Young players such as Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford who impressed towards the back end of last season, have been played out of position at times this season on the wings, meaning that they have little to no confidence when they get the rare opportunity to play in their favoured positons. Chris Smalling, who up until this season would have been considered the number one centre back for England, has found himself on the bench for his country this season due to poor performances for the club. Luke Shaw, who returned to the United side after a lengthy spell out with a double leg break, has failed to find the form that led to United buying him from Southampton the previous season and has faced spells out with further injuries. Both Ibrahimovic and Mata were both injured for long periods of time, putting a dent in United’s hopes of qualifying for the Champion’s League.
However, there have been some bright spots for United this season which will undoubtedly give Mourinho some confidence heading into the game. Ander Herrera, the club’s newly crowned Player of the Year, has been a shining light in the midfield this season, having contained key opposition players such as Phillipe Coutinho and Eden Hazard and has created several chances and set up several goals. Despite being plagued with injuries, Manchester United have the second best defensive record in the Premier League after Tottenham Hotspur. Sergio Romero, who is set to start in goal for United on Wednesday night, has impressed all season in the tournament and in the rare games he has played in the Premier League, including on Wednesday night against Southampton where he was named Man of the Match after saving a penalty early in the first half. Marouane Fellaini, who many would argue should not be at the club, has become a consistent stable option in the midfield.
Mourinho does boast an impressive cup final record, having won 11 out of 13 cup finals he has been involved in since 2003, which will give United and Mourinho confidence heading into the game next week. He also has a perfect cup record from his time in England, having won all of the cup finals he has been involved in in his time with Chelsea and now United. Mourinho’s saviness at knowing how to win cup games may well be what clinches the title for the English club and give them qualification to next season’s Champion’s League, something that the club can use to build upon next season.
The Europa League final takes place on Wednesday, the 24th May at 8pm.