Wednesday 16 August 2017

Pogba sets the tone as United victory lifts city

Ajax 0 Manchester Utd 2

Wayne Rooney takes centre stage as Manchester United celebrate their victory. Photo:
REUTERS
Wayne Rooney takes centre stage as Manchester United celebrate their victory. Photo: REUTERS

Miguel Delaney

It may mean so little compared to the tragedy of Monday but, as Paul Pogba so emotionally celebrated the goal that set Manchester United on the way to triumph in the Europa League, you could see how much it meant to the players; how much it meant to the club and how much it can mean for their city.

The most famous product of that city responded in the only way could, and in the way the club knows best: winning.

The supporters responded in the way they know best, by singing. "Manchester! Manchester!" came the defiant call from the end where Henrikh Mkhitaryan sealed victory over an inexperienced Ajax side to give Jose Mourinho his 12th victory from the 14 finals he has contested.

Textbook

It was textbook Mourinho. He was brought in to win and he has done it.

Losing this final would have changed much but United can justifiably argue that not only have they now won all three European trophies, but are a success once more.

Paul Pogba opens the scoring in Stockholm. Photo: Alex Grimm/Getty Images
Paul Pogba opens the scoring in Stockholm. Photo: Alex Grimm/Getty Images

This has been some odyssey for United, taking in 14 matches, across seven cities and 14,358 air miles from Istanbul to Rostov-on-Don in southerly Russia, via Odessa on the north-western shore of the Black Sea to reach this final.

It has been a long, long journey but they are back in the Champions League and go straight into the group stages.

Here we were in Stockholm, a city recovering from its own recent terrorist atrocity, with its freshness, vibrancy and beauty, it felt appropriate that this final took place here.

It also felt good that United were facing Ajax, a club brimming with youth and positivity and fielding the youngest ever starting XI in any European final, with an average age of just 22 years and 282 days.

Bertrand Traore is brought down by United's Ander Herrera. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Bertrand Traore is brought down by United's Ander Herrera. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

These two clubs have written their names across world football and this was United's seventh European final, having won the European Cup three times and a Cup Winners' Cup.

Read more: Jose Mourinho on poets, his most difficult season and transfer plans for next year

It was their first, though, since 2011. Ajax had to go further back, much further back, until before more than half their team was not even born, to 1996 since they were last in a European final.

So there were reasons to savour, embrace and enjoy. And soon United had reason to celebrate a goal.

It was a goal that had a huge slice of fortune but one that put them ahead with Paul Pogba, who has suffered his own personal loss with the death of his father, lining up a low shot from the edge of the penalty area, after he was set up by Marouane Fellaini, that ricocheted up off the shin of defender Davinson Sanchez to wrong-foot goalkeeper Andre Onana and spin into the net. Just 18 minutes had passed.

Quick-thinking Henrikh Mkhitaryan scores Manchester United’s second goal. Photo: Alex Grimm/Getty Images
Quick-thinking Henrikh Mkhitaryan scores Manchester United’s second goal. Photo: Alex Grimm/Getty Images

Pogba pointed to the heavens in celebration and afterwards dedicated the victory to the victims of the Manchester terrorist attack.

"We played for Manchester, we played for England and we played for the people who died," he said.

It felt, with the way the game started, that experience was counting. And size, too.

United were appreciably bigger with Fellaini dwarfing the man he was detailed to track, Lasse Schone, with Pogba a huge and influential presence.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan celebrates scoring Manchester United’s second goal with Paul Pogba in last night’s Europa League final. Photo: REUTERS
Henrikh Mkhitaryan celebrates scoring Manchester United’s second goal with Paul Pogba in last night’s Europa League final. Photo: REUTERS

They won header after header after header. It meant the first touch of Ajax striker Kasper Dolberg was to restart the game after Pogba's goal.

Before conceding, Ajax had appeared nervy. United were unashamedly direct, with the lushness of the pitch favouring them as they hoisted the ball forward.

Ajax were playing the more progressive football with Traore twice almost breaking through with a superb dribbling run.

United's game-plan began to appear more and more conservative to such a degree that it encouraged the Dutch side to believe they could begin to dominate even if they still struggled to create opportunities.

The biggest concern for United was how much Henrikh Mkhitaryan appeared to be struggling. He collected a caution, and could not get the better of Joel Veltman down the left.

Read more: Here is how the players rated in Manchester United's Europa League win over Ajax

Inevitably, then, he scored. It came from Juan Mata's corner, early in the second half, with Chris Smalling winning the header to bounce the ball down into the turf with Mkhitaryan adjusting and cleverly hooking it over his shoulder and high into the net from inside the six-yard box.

United's level of control appeared unassailable. The Ajax fans had let off flares, at the start of the second period, and as the smoke finally began to clear so their team also needed to settle or this final was over.

United were again winning their duels, with only a fine recovering tackle from Sanchez preventing Marcus Rashford - the youngest Englishman in a European final since Gary Mills for Nottingham Forest in 1980 - sprinting through.

Ajax tried. Their effort, their skill, could not be faulted. But United's wall was too strong and, in fact, they went closest went substitute Jesse Lingard ran clear, only for Sanchez to again launch the recovery tackle.

But there was no recovery for Ajax even if their fans continued singing. It was United's final. (© Independent News Service)

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