STOCKHOLM —- Manchester United have played many difficult matches; the context of their Europa League Final against Ajax was uniquely awful after the 22 deaths and 59 injuries in a criminal bombing less than two days earlier back home writes KEIR RADNEDGE.
But the final was there to be played, to be played as proof of defiance that life must and will go on; United illustrated the point by keeping admirably clear heads and winning more comfortably in the end than the 2-0 scoreline might suggest.
For United the match represented more than it needed, never mind access to the Champions League which had escaped them in the Premier League. For Ajax, probably as surprised as anyone that they were back on a great European stage, the context had brought its own pressures and uncertainties.
United manager Jose Mourinho, surprisingly, brought Juan Mata back into midfield and chose Chris Smalling ahead of Phil Jones in the centre of defence instead of the suspended Eric Bailly. Both decisions proved utterly vindicated. Sergio Romero continued as Europa League goalkeeper, rather than David De Gea.
European federation UEFA had trimmed the pre-match ceremonials to the essential basics, including a one-minute’s silence in tribute to the victims of the terror blast at the Ariana Grande concert on Monday night.
Probably it was a relief for everyone involved when Slovene referee Damir Skomina blew his whistle for the focus to turn, however briefly, to the football.
United were first into their stride and Ajax keeper Andre Onana nervously misfielded a through ball. He was then fortunate when Marouane Fellaini was just too late in his charge to reach a high-speed left-wing cross from Mata.
They had their reward after 18 minutes. World record signing Paul Pogba was the scorer, seizing on a square pass from Fellaini and delighted to see his shot deflected off the trailing leg of centre back Davinson Sanchez and up beyond Onana and into the net.
United, set up to pragmatic perfection by Mourinho, boasted too much experience and physicality for the youthful Dutch outfit who appeared lightweight by comparison. It was men against boys, albeit technically talented boys.
Marcus Rashford was proving a handful in the centre of attack for United for whom skipper Antonio Valencia had a fierce angled shot beaten out by Onana. All it needed was for that second goal to push them closer to the one one European trophy which had always proved beyond them – whether labelled Fairs Cup, UEFA Cup or, as now, Europa League.
That goal proved beyond them in the remainder of the first half but two minutes of the second half was all it took. Henrikh Mkhitaryan hooked in his sixth of the Europa League campaign after Mata’s right-wing corner was knocked down by Smalling.
The Belgian should have had a goal of his own in the 64th minute, rising to a fine right-wing cross from Pogba but heading it firmly into the waiting arms of Onana.
It mattered not, in the end. United could even afford the late, sentimental substitution of Mata by club captain Wayne Rooney for what was his 559th and possibly last appearance in a United shirt.
Skomina’s final whistle signalled victory for United, a third trophy of Mourinho’s debut season after the Community Shield and League Cup and a return to the Champions League, just as he had been scheming for the last few months.
Players, officials and fans had something to celebrate, if briefly.
Ajax: Onana – Veltman, Sanchez, De Ligt, Riedewald (De Jong 80) – Klaassen, Schone (Van de Beek 69), Ziyech – Toure, Dolberg (Neres 61), Younes.
Man. Utd: Romero – Valencia, Smalling, Blind, Darmian – Herrera – Mata (Rooney 89), Fellaini, Rogba, Mkhitaryan (Lingard 73) – Rashford (Martial 83)
Ref: Skomina (Svn).