The UEFA Cup gave Jose Mourinho his first European trophy 14 years ago when Porto beat Celtic in Seville. Tonight, the competition’s latest guise provides the biggest game of his managerial career since the Champions League final seven years ago.
Win and Mourinho’s Manchester United will be back on a firm track to recovery. Lose and this season will be a failure for United. Football is comprised of many shades of grey but this is black and white, the difference between a pass or a fail.
No United manager had ever won a trophy in his first season, not even Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson, the greatest of all. Each inherited teams which needed rebuilding. Managers do. David Moyes stated in private right from the start in 2013 that he had a serious rebuilding job to do, as did Louis van Gaal. Mourinho has done the same.
Each has shaken their head at the amount of work they had to do, confident that they were the men to do it, the saviours to get United back to football’s top table. Moyes lasted less than a year, Van Gaal managed two. Mourinho thinks it’s fair to judge him after three.
The Portuguese is about to come to the end of his first season as United boss and while United fans largely think he’s the man to bring greatness back to the club, he’s not without snipers who are already calling him yesterday’s man. That criticism will intensify if United don’t win their next match, but as it stands Mourinho is the only United manager to have lifted silverware in his first term following February’s EFL Cup at Wembley.
Mourinho is a collector; he likes to say that he’s won different titles at different clubs in different countries. To him, a title is a trophy. When I spoke to him just before Christmas he said that his highlight at Old Trafford had not been beating Manchester City in a cup match, getting the job or signing four quality players, but lifting the Community Shield. Another title, more tangible silverware.
By the time he’d added the EFL Cup with a win over a Southampton side who played well, he’d downgraded the Community Shield to ‘half a trophy’, but he still won the first two trophies available to Premier League clubs this season.
Unlike Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, he’d made a tangible mark with the limited assets at his disposal. Yes, he spent a fortune last summer and talked of challenging for league titles when he arrived, but in private he knew his squad wasn’t as strong as those at Chelsea (which he knew better than most), City, Liverpool, Spurs or Arsenal.
After 38 games, that pessimistic realism was vindicated as United finished sixth, a massive 24 points behind the London champions.
It’s nowhere near good enough and United’s form and style of play in 2017 has been as disappointing as all those 10 home league draws at Old Trafford. The team haven’t scored enough goals in the league. A haul of 54 from 38 matches compares unfavourably with all the teams above them who’ve scored between 77-86. And even some teams below.
United fans have been singing ‘Something Good’ since late January after adapting a 60s song from old Manchester band Herman’s Hermits. It’s catchy and includes the lyrics ‘Jose’s playing the way that United should’. They had been in the two months previous, yet since it took off, United have patently not been playing the way that United should.
There have been a few decent moments – the high point being April’s home win over Chelsea – but sixth is sixth and you can’t dress up that position. United have had a poor league season and yet the mood among fans, at least until the tragedy at the Manchester Arena on Monday night, was optimistic.
The reason was simple: Stockholm. And United reaching their seventh European final in their history. It’s not the European Cup where United really should be among football’s biggest boys, but the Europa League is still significant – though ironically United fans did once dismiss it as a tournament which hasbeens Liverpool played in.
Paul Pogba didn’t sign for United to play in the Europa League and nor would his compatriot Antoine Griezmann find the idea of the Europa League appealing.
These are players that should be playing at the highest level among the best players in the biggest stadiums, but first United must overcome a young and talented Ajax side. If they can do that, the win could be used as a springboard to future success, just like it was in 1991 when United won the European Cup Winners’ Cup – and went on to dominate English football for almost two decades.
With a sense of revision, United fans are rightly labelling the Europa League as the only trophy which the club has yet to win. It’s also true that hardcore fans were serious about wanting to win it right from the first of the 14 games so far in Rotterdam in September.
The competition has also seen some of United’s best football this season, some of the most interesting trips for fans with the atmosphere in St Etienne, Rotterdam and Istanbul sublime. Few travelling were complaining about the welcome by the Atlantic in Vigo either for a semi-final first leg against a team who’d beaten Barcelona and Real Madrid this season.
Good sides have been dispatched along the way and 2016-17 can still be considered a success if United can defeat Ajax tonight.
Firstly, it’ll mean another trophy. Secondly, a direct route into the Champions League to which the club are desperate to return. United have struggled to overcome sides like Anderlecht and Rostov on the way to the Swedish capital, but they have still prevailed. When they faced their toughest test in Vigo, they passed with conviction.
And they’ll need more of that tonight if they’re to pass their most important examination this season.