Man United pay heavy price to get past Celta and reach Europa League final
MANCHESTER, England -- Three quick thoughts from Manchester United's 1-1 Europa League semifinal second-leg draw with Celta Vigo at Old Trafford on Thursday, which sees the English side advance to the final 2-1 on aggregate.
1. Man United pay heavy price to reach Europa League final
The good news for Manchester United is that they are one win away from qualifying for the Champions League, but their progression to the Europa League final came at a heavy price against Celta Vigo.
United, who progressed 2-1 on aggregate, were seconds from being knocked out, but John Guidetti missed an easy chance for the Spanish side in the final minute of stoppage time. By that point, both teams had been reduced to 10 men following red cards for Eric Bailly and Facundo Roncaglia after a late clash.
Bailly's dismissal, for lashing out at Guidetti, means he will miss the final against Ajax in Stockholm, denying United their best defender in a game they must win to qualify for next season's Champions League. With Marcos Rojo already out because of a cruciate ligament injury, Bailly's absence will leave a huge hole in United's back four.
Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, both subjected to stinging criticism from manager Jose Mourinho in recent weeks, will battle it out for the right to partner with Daley Blind against his former club.
But on a night when United did their best to sabotage their own hopes of reaching the final, the loss of Bailly was perhaps a case of Mourinho's team getting off lightly.
You do not have to be spectacular when winning semifinals, you just need to win them, and United will face Ajax in the Europa League final after getting the job done. A narrow win in Spain on Thursday, followed by this laboured 1-1 draw at Old Trafford, was enough to carry United over the line, but they were far from convincing.
Ajax are vulnerable at the back and without a win on the road in Europe for six games, but United are also there for the taking. It promises to be a nervy night in Stockholm.
2. Mourinho's Fellaini paradox in Stockholm
Love him or loathe him, Marouane Fellaini has become an important figure under Mourinho, and the Belgian midfielder repaid his manager's faith once again with the crucial first-half goal against Celta Vigo that put United in control of this Europa League semifinal.
Fellaini, who displayed his infuriating side when sent off for head-butting Manchester City's Sergio Aguero last month, has become a man for the big occasion; this goal against Celta was his third in semifinals for United.
But when Mourinho selects Fellaini, United lose the ability to control midfield, as the former Everton man is often picked ahead of Michael Carrick alongside Ander Herrera. It was a problem against Celta, with the Spanish side dominating possession and creating far too many chances for Mourinho's liking at Old Trafford.
With Carrick, United are less exposed to being out-passed, with the former England midfielder a master at controlling the tempo of games and wise enough to use his game management when required.
Against Ajax in the Europa League final later this month, United will again face a team confident in possession, so Mourinho has a big choice to make: Does he go for Carrick's experience and ability to anchor midfield, or is Fellaini's unique threat more of an asset against the Dutch team?
It is a big call and one that could decide whether United win in Stockholm or come back empty-handed.
3. Stockholm set to host football royalty
The Europa League is beginning to shake off its reputation as a twilight zone for Europe's lightweights, and a clash between Manchester United and Ajax in the final in Stockholm will only boost the competition's reputation.
Last season, Liverpool and Sevilla contested a heavyweight final in Basel, and on May 24, Stockholm will see two clubs with 10 major European trophies between them battle it out for silverware in the Friends Arena. It is a genuine clash of footballing royalty.
Ajax have already secured Champions League qualification through the Dutch Eredivisie this season, so they will travel to Sweden without the added pressure of having their campaign boiling down to 90 minutes.
If United win, they will find themselves back in the Champions League and will also join Ajax, Bayern Munich, Juventus and Chelsea as the only clubs to win all of UEFA's major trophies: the European Cup, which was replaced by the Champions League; the Cup Winners' Cup, which is now defunct; the Super Cup; and the UEFA Cup, which was replaced by the Europa League.
But United will know that their season rests on the outcome of the Europa League final, and Ajax will pose a tough obstacle to overcome.
Peter Bosz's team are young and inexperienced, but Ajax are a huge club with a glittering tradition and will face United with the belief and winning mentality that comes from being one of Europe's most successful clubs.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_