Manchester United drew 1-1 at Old Trafford for the 12th time in 2016/17 – although only on this occasion, the scoreline was actually enough for the Red Devils to reach the seventh European final in their history.
In isolation, it was another poor display from Mourinho’s men at home where their inability to win football matches has been well documented this campaign. Utterly dominated by the 12th placed side in La Liga both in terms of possession and clear-cut chances created, Manchester United limped to the finish line after a decent early start.
But the margins were so fine in a game that Mourinho claimed to be the ‘biggest in Manchester United’s history’ that if ex-Manchester City forward John Guidetti was able to direct the ball towards an open goal in the final seconds of stoppage time any better than he managed to do on the night, then we would have all been singing from a very different hymn-sheet today.
This pragmatic and ultra-cautious approach driven by an innate fear of failure more than an appetite to win has been the staple diet of Mourinho’s managerial career ever since he first won the same competition with Porto to announce his arrival at the big stage. But in the context of Man United reaching another European final after falling behind in the race for fourth in the Premier League, thereby keeping their chances to qualify for the Champions League alive, the lacklustre performance they delivered on Thursday should not be a worrying factor by any means.
Speaking of worrying factors, the red card enforced absence of Eric Bailly in Stockholm, could hurt United in the final against a young and inexperienced but vibrant and free-scoring Ajax side. The 22-year old summer signing has been a revelation at Old Trafford, already drawing, although admittedly premature comparisons with former captain and fellow no non-sense center half Nemanja Vidic.
In addition to finding the right center-back partnership for the final – with Daley Blind again not convincing enough to start on the 24th of May and the return of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling to full fitness, Mourinho will also have a selection headache in the goalkeeping area. So far, Sergio Romero has been the mainstay in the Europa League and has played an integral role in the Red Devils conceding the least amount of goals in the competition. But provided with the luxury of replacing a keeper that has been very reliable with one of the very best in the world is an idea that the Portuguese will relish to ponder.
Old Trafford bore witness to a rare sight as Mourinho’s emotions spilled out after the final whistle when the Portuguese was spotted celebrating with a scarf, pumping his fists in front of a raucous Stretford End – applauding the 70,000 plus home fans who did very well to respond to his call of duty prior to this game.
For all the build up to what is effectively United’s last chance saloon in terms of achieving at least the bare minimum – reaching the group stages of the Champions League for next season with the added bonus of silverware, the players somehow managed it – like they did in the last few minutes of the EFL cup final, when at one stage the odds were stacked against them.
For all the criticism of their lack of flair and cutting edge decisiveness in front of goal – a pre-requisite in the best sides, United have shown, on a variety of occasions, that they will not bow down easily. And that resilience will take them a long way in an unfamiliar fixture, their first Europa League final appearance – and a rare chance to complete a full set of European and International trophies.