As most English football fans know, Manchester United’s up and down season hinges on one game. The Europa League final showdown with Ajax on Wednesday, 24 May, in Stockholm, quite literally makes or breaks United’s season because Champions League qualification is at stake.
Jose Mourinho chose to prioritise the competition some time ago, raising a fair few eyebrows. Drab home draws and too few wins against teams competing around it have prevented United from securing a top four finish through the more traditional league method. The Old Trafford club can only finish sixth, where it has languished for a large part of the season.
After being drawn with Belgian side Anderlecht in the Europa League quarter finals, Mourinho declared the competition his side’s best route to the Champions League. As soon as a top four Premier League finish became too difficult, he began resting his best players in preparation for Thursday night clashes. Paul Pogba, Antonio Valencia, Michael Carrick, and Marcus Rashford all became domestic ghosts. But for injuries to Marcos Rojo and top goal scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mourinho may well have rotated even further.
His idea to prioritise Europe’s second string competition over the Premier League has led to much criticism and mockery from fans and pundits alike. However, his actions aren’t dissimilar to Sir Alex Ferguson in the Scot’s early Manchester United days.
Manchester United took part in 1991’s European Cup Winners’ Cup, eventually winning the now abolished tournament for domestic cup winners. Ironically, the tournament held high prestige until the new Champions League format was established.
Sir Alex’s side were sitting third in the Prem as the Cup Winners’ Cup neared its climax, representing United’s joint-highest finish in over 20 years. Knowing full well his side could not finish any higher domestically, Fergie gambled, rotating his team to save his main men for Europe. United beat Legia Warsaw to set up a Rotterdam showdown with Barcelona, winning that final 2-1. Meanwhile, the Red Devils slipped all the way to–you guessed it–sixth place in the Premier League.
Sir Alex’s all-in bet on a European trophy and famous night in Holland, rather than appeasing supporters’ pride in a higher league place, was a brave decision that is sounding awfully familiar right now.
There is one key difference. When Sir Alex made his choice, United hadn’t been top dogs in England for decades. Of course, fans wanted to see a title challenge but there was much less scandal at falling short than there is now. Mourinho’s squad, just four years removed from the club’s last title, represents a significant cash investment. The minimum acceptable return is Champions League qualification. Lifting the Europa League trophy would obtain that, albeit in an unorthodox way. Anything can happen in a one-off match, however.
Is it a foolish gamble to bet an entire season on one contest? Is it shrewd management? Or is it just making do with the cards you’ve been dealt, or in this case, dealt yourself? Opinion will no doubt differ from fan to fan. Defeat to Ajax will make it far more difficult for Mourinho to defend his choice as easily as Sir Alex did with victory in 1991.
The similarity between the two scenarios is plain to see, if somewhat hard to accept as fact. Two tournaments Manchester United isn’t normally associated with in two situations it would no doubt have preferred to be nowhere near. Almost carbon copies in that sense. But whether Mourinho’s gamble will pay off just as his Scottish predecessor’s did remains to be seen. A week’s worth of doubt and worry makes all the difference.