By Stephen Mills
Last Updated: 24/05/17 10:05pm
Manchester United lifted the Europa League trophy after an emotional 2-0 victory over Ajax on Wednesday night in Stockholm.
Paul Pogba’s deflected strike in the 18th minute and Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s close-range goal (48) secured United’s second trophy of the season and a result which may offer some joy to the city of Manchester following a devastating week.
Victory also earns the club a place in next season’s Champions League group stage and justifies the decision of manager Jose Mourinho to prioritise this competition in recent months.
The celebrations of the fans and players at the full-time whistle were, however, tempered by thoughts of the terrorist attack at Manchester Arena on Monday evening, which prompted heightened security at the Friends Arena and a sombre build-up to the showpiece match.
Many supporters carried signs in tribute to the victims of the tragedy and there were chants of ‘Manchester, Manchester’ following a period of silence ahead of kick-off.
Pogba, who was playing less than two weeks after the death of his father, almost rewarded those travelling supporters inside the first minute, but shot narrowly wide from distance.
But the world’s most expensive player only had to wait until the 18th minute for the breakthrough, which followed a terrible throw-in from Jairo Riedewald, presenting the ball to Juan Mata in a dangerous area.
The ball was worked to Pogba, via Marouane Fellaini, and the Frenchman’s 20-yard shot took a wicked deflection off the knee of Davinson Sanchez giving wrong-footed goalkeeper Andre Onana no chance of keeping it out.
It was a cruel moment for Ajax, but the goal was a just reward for a dominant, controlled first-half display from United and they might have doubled their advantage when captain Antonio Valencia’s fine run and shot from a tight angle forced Onana to beat the ball away.
But the second goal arrived just three minutes into the second half and it came from another of Mourinho’s summer signings following a Mata corner.
Chris Smalling nodded the ball down for Mkhitaryan inside the six-yard box and the Armenian leapt to hook the ball past Onana, sparking vigorous celebrations and more ‘Manchester’ chants.
The goal was a bitter blow for an Ajax team with an average age of just over 22 who rarely threatened Sergio Romero – and things might have gotten worse when Fellaini headed Pogba’s cross straight at the goalkeeper or when substitute Jesse Lingard was denied by a last-ditch Sanchez tackle in the closing minutes.
Club captain Wayne Rooney was introduced from the bench in the 89th minute for what might prove to be a farewell appearance, as United held on to add the Europa League to the EFL Cup they won in February and ensure there will be five Premier League teams playing in the Champions League next season.
The success means they become the fifth club in history to have won all three major European trophies, but more importantly, could bring a smile to some supporters in a heartbreaking week for their city.
Manchester United: Romero, Valencia, Smalling, Blind, Darmian, Fellaini, Herrera, Pogba, Mata (Rooney, 89), Rashford (Martial, 83), Mkhitaryan (Lingard, 74)
Ajax: Onana, Veltman, Riedewald (De Jong, 82), Sanchez, De Ligt, Klaassen, Schone (De Beek, 70), Ziyech, Traore, Younes, Dolberg (Neres, 62)