Thursday 22 February 2018

Another cup for Old Trafford trophy cabinet but now the real work begins

Jose Mourinho kisses the Europa League trophy following United's victory in Stockholm. Photo: GETTY
Jose Mourinho kisses the Europa League trophy following United's victory in Stockholm. Photo: GETTY

James Ducker

It's a reflection of the curious nature of Manchester United's season that its success or failure hinged so squarely on the outcome of last night's Europa League final.

Some will wonder how that could have been so, how a gruelling 64-game campaign full of highs and lows could effectively boil down to one match. But there was so much riding on the result against Ajax, both in the immediacy and in the context of next season and beyond, that it was easy to understand the significance being attached to it.

The events at the Manchester Arena on Monday brought a chilling reminder that football is of limited importance in the widest sense, even if, for many people, it also offers one of those pleasures that serve as an antidote to such hate.

But there was also no need for Jose Mourinho or anyone associated with United to dilute the significance of the game to their campaign and future hopes and aims, for fear of appearing insensitive to the atrocities that overshadowed the build-up to events in Stockholm.

United had to win and, while it was important for Mourinho and the club to strike the right tone, their relief at getting the job done will be marked, and will perhaps only really be felt in the coming weeks and months as they prepare for next season.

Where would defeat have left United? In the short-term, facing a much bigger scramble to secure the services of France striker Antoine Griezmann from Atlético Madrid, for one, and doubtless other leading transfer targets, not to mention keeping hold of David de Gea.

The Spain goalkeeper may yet go to Real Madrid, but last night's triumph aids rather than hinders United's cause.

Read more: Look away Liverpool fans - Manchester United are now officially the most successful club in England

Money talks - as underlined by the eye-watering contracts dished out to Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba last summer, when there was no Champions League football at Old Trafford.

However, a second successive season without the Champions League, and a third in four years, would not have sent out a positive message, and the repercussions would have been felt well beyond a £50m hit in revenues, including a drop in the value of the club's kit deal with Adidas.

No Premier League side have yet been able to demonstrate that they can sufficiently tackle the Thursday-Sunday conundrum raised by involvement in the Europa League, not even a club with United's resources.

Another campaign fumbling around in Europe's secondary competition would have placed a question mark over the legitimacy of a serious title challenge by United, whereas now, Mourinho and his players will be able to look ahead with a renewed sense of optimism. And so they should.

Two pieces of silverware - the League Cup and Europa League - in addition to Champions League qualification, constitutes success by most definitions.

But Mourinho is too smart, too savvy, to kid himself into thinking there is not considerable work to be done.

There may be mitigating factors behind a sixth-place finish in the Premier League, 24 points adrift of champions Chelsea.

Mourinho threw in the towel in the league weeks before the end of the season as he prioritised Europe, while fatigue and injuries to key personnel told. But there are weaknesses and shortcomings that a successful climax to the campaign cannot mask, and Mourinho must get it right in the transfer market as he chases the injection of quality United so clearly need.

Michael Keane is likely to join from Burnley, and will prove a much better central-defensive partner than anything United can currently offer Eric Bailly.

United also need a top-class left-back and defensive midfielder and, with Ibrahimovic uncertain to play again this year and his future uncertain, a pedigree target man to assist Griezmann and Marcus Rashford is also a priority.

Perhaps only then will Mourinho, who reverted to a more familiar defensive mindset as the season progressed, be able and willing to embrace a more adventurous side in keeping with the club's tradition.

It went down to the wire, but United are back in the Champions League. Now they must challenge for the biggest trophies again. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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